People who spend their professional lives moving big things have a hard time letting go. Just like Pierre Vimont, who did not retire to the Côte d’Azur or a small chalet in the Alps, but to a cream-colored Art Nouveau mansion at Rue de Congrès in downtown Brussels. The lower floors of the US security policy think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), ranked fifth among the world’s most influential of its kind in 2017, are occupied by young analysts, political advisors, media experts. On the third floor, at the end of a stairway laid out with thick, red carpet, Pierre Vimont is sitting at a smoked glass desk. Even in midsummer, he wears his white shirt buttoned up, his red tie sitting tightly. The wave in his grey hair makes him resemble a British lord. He was Chef de Cabinet in Paris and has been France’s ambassador to Washington and Brussels. Later, when the EU began opening embassies and pursuing a foreign policy of its own – like a real state rather than a wobbly compromise – the Commission named Vimont Secretary-General of its shadow foreign ministry, the European External Action Service (EEAS). Vimont worked six years to build this crossbreed between the EU Commission and the Council, until retiring as a Senior Fellow at the CEIP in February 2015. But his exit was brief. After just two months, end of April 2015, his phone rang. It was the Polish President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk. ‘Could you come back?’ he asked. Vimont could.[1]

Five weeks earlier, during the night from 18 to 19 April 2015, a refugee boat had capsized on the way from Libya to Italy. 28 passengers were rescued; around 500 drowned. In the previous week, around 1,000 people had died in several smaller incidents. Carlotta Sami, speaker of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, called it ‘one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the last 12 months’.[2] Four days later, the EU heads of state meet for an extraordinary Council summit in Brussels. Most of the 28 EU states do not feel affected by the crisis. At the time, the Balkan route is still fairly quiet. In Brussels, they mostly want to talk about whether extra euros to Rome could soften the shock. As usual.

One participant wants more: German Chancellor Merkel. Attendants report her saying to the gathered leaders: ‘This will keep going, it won’t stop’.[3] Merkel’s idea is a summit with Africa. After all, that is where the refugees are coming from. So Africa must be the key to stopping them. Italy and Spain had the same idea in the past. The other member states have not pursued this thought so far. The EU and the African Union (AU) meet every four years anyway, so the other states prefer waiting until the next scheduled meeting in November 2017. Merkel does not want to wait. She senses that the Mediterranean situation will get worse. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat supports her: ‘I’ll organize the summit.’ ‘Any objections?’ asks Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs the meeting. No answers. The meeting asks Tusk to handle the preparations. A few days later he calls Vimont.

Vimont’s job is to invite around half of all African states to Malta for November 2015. Here they are expected to agree to slashing the numbers of refugees coming to Europe. What would they demand? And what could the EU offer them? Vimont, the unretired negotiator, gets only 20 weeks to find out – and the title ‘Personal Envoy of the President of the European Council. A small team from Vimont’s old agency, the EEAS, is set up: Vimont, one assistant and an advisor sent by the EU Council. Vimont’s discretionary power is mostly determined by the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA).

‘The officials in Brussels are skeptical,’ says Vimont. The number of deaths in the Mediterranean drops a bit over the following months, but the Balkan route is about to escalate. Hungary factually suspends the Dublin Agreement, Greece’s capacity for taking in refugees collapses. ‘Everyone was looking at the Balkan route, while we were working on the Africa summit,’ says Vimont. Many people in Brussels do not see the use. ‘People take care of first things first,’ says Vimont, ‘and back then, that was the Balkan route.’ In early summer he visits capitals of member states and meets senior officials. He wants to know what they are willing to offer the Africans. They do not think like their colleagues in Brussels: ‘The advisors to the heads of government told us: ‘You’re right! Keep going! When the situation in the Balkans calms down, the African migration will continue.’

A limited group

The so-called Rabat Process, a loose group of EU states and 23 states from Western and Eastern Africa, started in 2006. They talk about migration policy. The platform is organized by the Viennese think tank International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). The ICMPD also coordinates the East African equivalent, the Khartoum Process, which started in 2014 in Rome between the EU and Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

These two processes have not yielded many results so far, but the talks have a certain structure, which Vimont uses as a basis for the new platform. He invites representatives of all EU states and the Rabat and Khartoum processes to a meeting in Brussels in July. Other invitees are the AU, the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the ICMPD. African states who are not part of the Rabat or Khartoum processes want to take part in the talks. ‘But these other states were represented by the AU. We wanted to start with a limited group first,’ says Vimont.

The invited African states send diplomats. ‘I asked them: “What do you think should be the outcome of this summit?”’ says Vimont. They sense that there is something in it for them and demand concrete favors in return. In September, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announces the endowment of a fund worth €1.8 billion for ‘addressing root causes of irregular migration in Africa’.[4]

‘The African states were pleasantly surprised,’ says Vimont. The negotiators meet three more times in the following months: the day after Juncker’s announcement in late September in the Egyptian coastal town of Sharm El Sheikh, in Rabat in October and finally in Malta in November.

The talks have one problem from the start: the 31 states of the Rabat and Khartoum processes include open dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. Eritrea and Sudan, but also Ethiopia, South Sudan and Egypt – military rulers, war criminals and civil war regimes. Vimont begins negotiating outside of public view, but this soon changes. The media, NGOs and members of parliament soon start asking whether working with these states is the right thing to do.

Brussels ponders this very early and the answer is yes. ‘The interior ministers were mostly looking for effectiveness,’ says Vimont. ‘The question was: How do we get results?’ Hence the EU interior ministers work to get representatives of dictators to join the discussion, as long as they might be useful. Vimont uses a very diplomatic expression: ‘It required some accommodation with our principles and values.’ The ministers use the deaths in the Mediterranean as an argument: ‘There were many Eritreans among them. Shouldn’t we be trying to save their lives?’ asks Vimont. ‘But it’s not easy, we all agree.’

Europe’s interior ministers have various requests for Vimont to negotiate. They all have in common that they lead to fewer people reaching Europe and more people becoming deportable. The ministers draft an EU Action Plan on Return, which is published on 9 September, around two months before the Valletta Summit. Vimont’s job briefing states: ‘One of the most effective ways to address irregular migration is the systematic return, either voluntary or forced, of those who do not or no longer have the right to remain in Europe.’[5]

One way to achieve this is a new type of deportation papers, which the African states are meant to recognize, so-called EU laissez-passers. What makes them special is that EU member states can issue them. This is exceedingly practical if deportees have no passport and their embassy will not issue one. In December 2015, the Commission proposes a bill for an EU travel document for illegal third-country nationals. The problem: No non-EU state will recognize them, because this would mean giving up the sovereignty to decide who is allowed to enter. The AU even considers them a breach of international law. ‘That was the hardest part,’ says Vimont. The Africans let him know that they will not agree.

Neither are they overjoyed by Europe’s call for more border controls in Africa. A high-ranking Brussels official describes it thus: ‘In many African states, the government doesn’t control [the borders]. The member states [of the EU] want more. Building new walls? Doesn’t work. That’s much too big. It’s just about doing sporadic controls. Those without papers will then be sent back.’ He admits this to be ‘problematic from a development policy angle’ and ‘a not very traditional type of development cooperation.’ African states are supposed to introduce controls where there used to be none. But sending back ‘only those without papers’ does not reflect the reality and is not nearly as harmless as it sounds.

African leaders even admit the need for more border controls – not least due to the Islamist terrorist groups active in the Sahel zone, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). ‘The Africans recognized existing dysfunctions,’ says Vimont. He says this is also why so many states later accepted border control training missions from the Europeans.

Ramping up border controls between their own countries, just because Europe said so – sounds like the Europeans meddling in their internal affairs. It injures their national, their anti-colonial pride. ‘It was a matter of principle,’ says Vimont. Spain, for example, understood this early on. ‘Spain demanded these border controls and readmissions from West African states and got them, too,’ says Vimont. ‘But this happened very quietly, without many statements, no public declarations, that was the secret of their success.’ This time, the European states acted differently: ‘They wanted to have it loud and clear in the communiqué for Valletta.’

Not even 30 percent leave

Readmission agreements are a curiosity of international law. They should not even exist – international law already requires every state to readmit its own citizens. In an agreement from the year 2000, signed in Benin’s capital Cotonou, the EU once more required all states of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group (ACP) to guarantee that they would take back all of their citizens illegally staying in the EU.

It just never happened.

In the Action Plan on Return of 2015, Vimont’s job briefing for the talks, the EU interior ministers write: ‘The return rates to African countries are under 30 percent – well below the general rate of return from the EU, which, at 40 percent, is already insufficient.’ Their hopes are on the upcoming Valletta Summit, which ‘offered a chance for a renewed commitment towards readmission,’ says Vimont.

The agreements are intended to ensure that African states cooperate in deportations by issuing passports and confirming people’s identities. Among the 17 states who have closed readmission agreements with the EU as a whole so far, there is only a single African state, the tiny island nation of Cape Verde. This has to change now. To avoid meddling from the EU Parliament, which is more sensitive to human rights issues, the Commission prefers informal agreements that do not require the Parliament’s approval.

The member states have done it before. Of the 60 agreements on deportation issues closed just by Germany, the UK, Italy, France and Spain with African states, only eight are formal readmission agreements. The rest are murky arrangements, often between police authorities.

The EU has been talking to African states about this issue since long before Vimont’s mission, albeit with little success. The EU demanded that the African states take back not just their own citizens, but also foreign citizens who crossed their territory in transit. ‘A very difficult issue,’ says Martijn Pluim of the ICMPD think tank, which has co-organized many of the talks. ‘Negotiations would be much easier without a third-country provision. As soon as it’s in, the African states have much more room to negotiate, their demands get bigger.’[6] Yet, many EU states insist on including third country nationals. Benefits to the EU states are clear – deportations to North African transit countries become much easier, faster and cheaper to organize.

The EU Council and the European External Action Service (EEAS) also insist on including the clause. Questions of prestige also drive the EU – if it succeeds in the readmission negotiations, where individual member states have failed, it could establish itself as a major foreign policy player. Many EU members remain critical of the growing influence of the group surrounding Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Many African states are also wary of this issue, though. They reject readmission agreements while demanding visas for their own citizens, even though this is not a good time. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been taking the Balkan route to Central Europe. The governments there are alarmed. Nobody wants to hear any demands that could lead to more immigration. ‘In the EU they’re saying the boat is full. From the partner countries’ point of view, however, any refugee who is readmitted is a bad deal,’ says a high-ranking official from the office of EU Development Commissioner Neven Mimica.

Negotiator Vimont’s words fall on deaf ears in the EU. No country wants to offer refugee quotas, even though EU Commission VP Frans Timmermans encourages member states to show signs of goodwill. ‘Nobody promised any visas to the Africans,’ says Vimont. The Commission’s efforts fail.

Pluim of the ICMPD considers this a fatal signal: ‘If the African countries see that the EU is only interested in negotiating with [them] about readmission and does not want a positive message for more immigration, this creates new reservations.’

The talks extend for months. Vimont tries to negotiate between the European interior ministers and the AU but has little to offer. Friction occurs between the EEAS and the Commission. Many states think the Commission is not going far enough, while the Commission foresees that the ministers will not get everything they want from the Africans. ‘To Africa, migration is an asset. To the EU, it’s more of a challenge, if not a security risk. That’s the problem,’ says Vimont.

On the evening of 10 November 2015, the heads of state of 62 countries from Europe and Africa meet at the Auberge de la Castille, a Renaissance palace just outside Valletta’s historical center. Sudan’s President Bashir, who has an outstanding international arrest warrant, has to send a representative. Vimont and the envoys sit together all night until the early morning to negotiate the paper upon which the heads of state will agree the next day. Although it is their fourth meeting, many points are still open. Too many.

The highest policy level takes over the next day. Frans Timmermans, Commission VP, leads the discussion during the actual summit. The day before, he was in Ankara to wrest a promise from the government to keep the roughly two million Syrian refugees in Turkey. It transpires that apparently the EU was now ready to grant the €3 million and visa-free travel demanded by Erdoğan. Now Timmermans is sitting behind the massive walls of the centuries-old Maltese fortress in Valletta and has to explain to the 33 visiting African leaders why there are only €1.8 billion for all of them and a couple of student visas – in exchange for keeping back migrants and refugees from all over their continent. The Africans feel that the Europeans are in distress.

It is a quarter past noon on Thursday, 12 November 2015, the second day of the summit, when Hungarian-born translator Eva Szilva types the last paragraph of the final declaration into her computer.

The leaders promise joint efforts to ‘fight against irregular migration’ in a 17-page ‘Action Plan,’ that bears neither the EU nor the AU logo.[7] It does not say much else. Readmission agreements? Subject to further talks. Laissez-passers? Not mentioned. Visas for Africans? Covered by existing legislation. Stronger border controls inside Africa? The EU offers to support ‘national capabilities.’ All in all, this document says a whole lot of nothing. Neither Africans nor Europeans ceded any ground on their most decisive issues. The loudly heralded EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is already considered a scam by most of the Africans. Most of the money had already been allocated to development aid in the EU budget. Going out of their way to accommodate the Europeans is not an option for the African leaders: deportations are hugely unpopular among their own citizens, and remittances from Africans in Europe are too important.

All-inclusive collaboration packages

Vimont’s job is done, but the EU realizes that its attempt to make a deal with half of a continent to solve its refugee problem will not work out.

Now what?

The EU picks five states in Valletta for more intensive negotiations in the future – individually, unlike Vimont’s approach: Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Ethiopia. The EU wants to close so-called migration compacts with them. These ‘all-inclusive collaboration packages’ cover investments, readmissions, deportation, counter-terrorism.

But differences remain. In bilateral talks with the five Compact states over the next few months, the EEAS is unable to win any major concessions. Niger is the only exception. All in all, the number of people returning to Africa does not increase – and neither does the number of those crossing the Mediterranean decrease.

Germany’s government tries going solo: In February 2016, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (Christian Democratic Union (CDU)) both pen a letter to the governments of Algeria, Benin, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco and Sudan. They declare their intention to use EU laissez-passer documents to repatriate all irregular immigrants, who have no prospects of staying in Germany.[8] [9] Germany tries to woo the governments with the promise of entering a ‘new phase,’ which could also ‘positively affect other areas of [their] cooperation.’ It is no use – no country wants to work with these deportation papers ‘made in Germany.’

A few weeks later, the Turkey deal takes effect. ‘That was a turning point,’ says Vimont. ‘It reinforced the idea of readmission. Because everyone saw: This works.’ Turkey proves that transit countries ‘can find common ground with the EU,’ says Vimont. Commission VP Timmermans now wants to copy the deal for the Central Mediterranean. Many EU states support for the initiative. ‘The slightly harder narrative that followed had a lot to do with this,’ says Vimont.

The ‘slightly harder narrative’ begins after 7 June 2016, half a year after the Valletta Summit. Now the EU’s African partners have the gun to their heads. Its new, so-called partnership agreements with Africa openly threaten to use ‘all policies and instruments at the EU’s disposal to achieve concrete results’ in migration management.[10] The same day, Timmermans explains the new Africa policy in Brussels, calling it ‘a mix of positive and negative incentives’[11] and demanding that third countries who cooperate ‘efficiently’ with the EU should be ‘rewarded’ while the others should have to face ‘consequences.’[12]

Vimont’s approach was to emphasize shared interests with Africa to win over the AU as a whole. ‘[We need] real partnerships [that are] economic, social and cultural in nature,’ claimed President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz (Social Democrats (SPD)). But this is not the truth, and the Africans know. Their interests and Europe’s interests in the migration question do not overlap. While the Valletta Process will continue as a dialog round, the political efforts shift towards the carrot and stick approach. Timmermans promises €8 billion through the end of the decade to those countries who help increase deportations and decrease new arrivals – a multiple of the sum initially intended for the EU Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF). The goal is to bring ‘order’ into the migration flows.

The Council reiterates this goal from mid-2016 to mid-2017. At its meetings of 28 June and 21 October 2016, the Council demands concrete and measurable results for the fast deportation of irregular migrants. If the African states fail to comply, involvement and aid will be adjusted.[13] In December 2016 it demands the systematic inclusion of other instruments and policy areas,[14] which include possible trade sanctions. Almost one year after Timmerman introduced the migration framework based mostly on political pressure at the Council meeting in June 2017, the EU finally announces the use of ‘all possible levers.’[15] In EU lingo, this likely means cuts in development assistance.

Two years after Vimont the diplomat was unretired from his office at the Rue de Congrès, the EU has hardly made a step forward. No African country has signed a readmission agreement or officially accepted the laissez-passer papers. In June 2017, the Commission announces that still only 26 percent of the Nigerians without a valid visa are leaving the EU. Among the Senegalese, this figure has dropped from 12.5 to 9 percent. Ethiopian returnees make up only 9.8 percent and Malians 4.8 percent – a disastrous result for the EU measured by its own targets.

Now a realization is dawning on Brussels and Berlin: they need a new strategy based on economic policy.

  1. Personal interview, Brussels, 16 June 2017
  2. UNHCR (2016) ‘Survivors report massive loss of life in latest Mediterranean Sea’, 20 April |
  3. Personal interview, Brussels, 16 June 2017
  4. EU Commission (2015) ‘Refugee Crisis: European Commission takes decisive action’, 9 September |
  5. EUR Lex (2015) ‘EU Action Plan on return’, 9 September |
  6. Jakob, Christian (2017) ‘Eine Brutstätte für Extremisten’, tageszeitung, 11 February |
  7. ‘2015 Valletta Summit on Migration: 'Action Plan”’, November 2015 |
  8. Personal interview, Brussels, 7 December 2016
  9. Die Welt (2016) ‘Diese 17 Staaten behindern Abschiebungen aus Deutschland’, 23 February |
  10. EU Commission (2016) ‘Commission announces New Migration Partnership Framework: reinforced cooperation with third countries to better manage migration’, 7 June |
  11. Ibid.
  12. Zeit (2016) ‘Migration auf Zuckerbrot und Peitsche’, 7 June |
  13. European Council conclusions, 20-21 October 2016 |
  14. European Council conclusions, 15 December 2016 |
  15. European Council conclusions, 22-23/06/2017 |


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