Europe looks to wield trade ‘stick’ on migration

Brussels wants to use all tools at its disposal — including trade policy and access to visas — to increase the number of returns of migrants denied the right to stay in Europe.

Europe has long used carrots to force third countries to rein in migration. Now, Brussels wants to start using trade benefits as a stick.

Migration is again topping the political agenda, with EU leaders set to discuss the divisive issue at their summit next week. EU leaders will say that Europe will use “as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development, trade and visas as well as opportunities for legal migration,” according to draft conclusions seen by POLITICO.

Sweden, chairing meetings of EU ministers during its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, has a right-wing government and wants to focus more on the return of migrants denied the right to stay in Europe.

Governments in member countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria — under political pressure over migration — are also keen to show their domestic audiences that Europe is doing all it can to send back rejected asylum seekers.

The immigration services of EU member countries requested that 342,100 people be removed in 2021, the most recent year for which full data is available. Only 24 percent of them were actually returned to a country outside the bloc, according to Eurostat.

One lever is an EU program that allows developing countries to export goods to the EU at low or no tariffs, the Generalized Scheme of Preferences.

The program, which dates back over 50 years, is a tool to help these countries develop their economies and encourage them to implement human rights, labor and environmental reforms.

Now, EU countries are pushing to make the lower tariffs conditional, which would mean that countries like Afghanistan or Bangladesh could lose their trade preferences if they refuse to take back asylum seekers whose applications to stay in Europe have been rejected.

The new tougher line is not going down well with defenders of free trade and human rights campaigners, who don’t usually find themselves on the same side of the international trade debate.

“The core objective of the EU’s GSP is to contribute to poverty reduction and to promote sustainable development and human rights,” said Audrey Changoe, a trade campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. “The EU’s move to link trade benefits to the deportation of migrants goes completely against the initial goal of the scheme.”

Free traders
EU institutions kicked off talks on linking trade and migration on Tuesday, and will resume discussions on March 2, according to two EU officials. The more liberal free-trade advocates argue the EU shouldn’t overload its trade ambitions by trying to solve too many issues at once — otherwise, the “boat will sink,” according to Sabine Weyand, the Commission’s top civil servant on trade.

Bernd Lange, the chairman of the European Parliament’s trade committee, last week blamed EU countries for mixing trade policy with foreign security objectives.

“On the GSP, you are linking trade preferences with taking people, taking refugees back to [their] countries,” Lange said, adding that this didn’t serve the objectives of economic development. “Shouldn’t we stick to trade policy?” asked Lange.

Brushing off the criticism, Swedish trade chief Johan Forssell said: “We see GSP as one of the tools available to improve cooperation in this area.”

Sweden is one of the staunchest advocates of free trade within the bloc. But the conservative-leaning Swedish government formed after last September’s general election, which is backed by the anti-immigration far-right Sweden Democrats, wants to focus more on return policy during its presidency.