The EU should increase cooperation with third countries as a means to implement a more effective return policy at the continental level, the Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard told Euractiv in a group interview with journalists.
Stenergard, of Sweden’s centre-right Moderate Party (EPP), said she felt “quite positive” that the EU’s flagship Migration and Asylum Pact may be approved before the end of the current legislative mandate in mid-2024.
The pact, which seeks to revise the common management system of migration at the EU level, comprises ten legislative files that the EU institutions are aiming to approve by mid-February, according to the roadmap drawn up by EU lawmakers in September 2022.
Its progress has been under extreme political pressure, with one diplomatic source quipping to Euractiv that if an agreement is reached among EU institutions in the so-called trilogues, which are ongoing, it will likely be within 24 hours of the deadline.
Should an agreement remain out of reach, it would be the second time in a decade that ministers have failed to create a legal framework for migration at the EU level.
“The Asylum and Migration pact is extremely important, but equally important is the work in the external dimension,” the migration minister told journalists, in reference to the dialogue member states have with third countries.
The approach to the dialogue is determined by the Council, which – through unanimous decision-making – decides on how to cooperate on migration with non-EU countries. The legislative files of the pact, however, are voted on with a qualified majority.
Many organisations and civil society have criticised deals struck by EU institutions and governments of third countries to contain migration.
Migrant control agreements with Libya and Tunisia have been particularly controversial, with the UN publishing a report last March which found that Libyan militias operating within the coastguard had colluded with human traffickers and smugglers.
With arrivals from Tunisia via unsafe boats rocketing throughout 2023, critics have highlighted the human rights violations in the country, particularly towards nationals from Sub-Saharan countries.
“I am well aware of the situation that is extremely worrying in several of these countries,” the minister said, replying to a question regarding the unstable state situation in Libya.
“But I am still convinced that we need to cooperate with our neighbouring countries, so to speak, in order to fight these trafficking networks,” she argued.
External dimension for returns
The minister voiced belief that cooperation with third countries must be beneficial when it comes to speeding up returns of those that “do not need protection”.
Stenergard described two different types of migrants that she believes arrive at European shores: those ‘genuinely’ in need of international protection, and those who are “economic migrants”, who arrive at EU borders via smuggling networks and should be repatriated.
“When it comes to reducing irregular migration and increasing returns, I believe we must work in many different parallel tracks and not be afraid to act. We need to build capacity in countries of origin and transit and create partnerships built on mutual interests and trust,” the minister said on the matter, calling for an EU approach to step up returns.
In the meantime, Sweden is taking different measures to put in place tighter border controls.
“We are increasing detention capacity, intensifying the work that controls within the territory and information sharing between authorities, which is today very restricted,” the minister told journalists.
“The government is also intensifying its cooperation with countries of origin and transit” to invest in their societies and to “make them more stable”, she said, citing Somalia as one example.
Egypt like Tunisia?
Another third country the EU is currently in dialogue with is Egypt, with the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Antonio Tajani arriving in Egypt on Monday (9 October) to speak with national authorities, among others, about migration.
To the question of whether an agreement with Egypt would be similar to the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia, the minister said she has no procedural details on the matter but supports the “deepening” relationships with such countries.
The deal between the EU and Tunisia covers a wide range of EU investments in Tunisia, not only in the field of migration and border management, but also in submarine cable projects such as the ELMED and MEDUSA.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Nathalie Weatherald]