Analysis: Charting a course through the labyrinth of externalisation

“Migration is a European challenge which requires a European response” has become a favoured refrain of EU officials and communiques. While the slogan is supposed to reinforce the need for a unified EU migration policy, it also masks the reality of the situation. The EU’s response to migration – in particular, irregular migration – is increasingly dependent on non-EU, and non-European states. Billions of euros and huge diplomatic efforts have been expended over the last three decades to rope non-EU states into this migration control agenda, and the process of externalisation is accelerating and expanding. Understanding the institutions and agencies involved is a crucial first step for anyone working for humane EU asylum and migration policies.

Support our work: become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.

Image: Maksym Kaharlytskyi, Unsplash

Externalisation: a long-term agenda

The EU’s externalisation agenda has developed over the past three decades and consists of all the policies, practices and projects to outsource (or externalise) border and migration controls to non-EU states. Most of these policies are designed and implemented by the EU bureaucracy far from the public eye. The technical character of cooperation is often used as a shield to conceal information on the underlying objectives of the policies. Implementation far from EU territory makes democratic scrutiny difficult, even though it results in routine breaches of EU and international law.

Portrayed by the EU and its member states as an attempt to prevent “illegal” movement and save lives, the externalisation of border controls does the opposite: it produces illegality and puts peoples’ lives in danger. For those seeking to travel to the EU, mass deportations, racist violence, internment in camps, torture and abuse, and the diversion of journeys to more dangerous routes are some of the most prominent effects of the externalisation of migration controls. The agenda has so far failed to achieve its goal of reducing “irregular” arrivals on EU territory. Undeterred, the EU and its member states are seeking to intensify their efforts, through means and methods that prevent meaningful democratic scrutiny – let alone democratic control – over public policy choices.

To work towards migration policies that prioritise human rights, and which are subject to meaningful democratic control, layers of secrecy, opacity and bureaucratic jargon must be peeled back to clarify what EU and member state officials have been discussing and what they intend to do. Obtaining a clear picture of the plans, policies and projects under discussion is vital for informing the legal, political and social response by civil society organisations aiming to challenge the externalisation agenda. That is precisely the aim of this bulletin.

Political priorities

While externalisation has always been part of EU migration policies, it emerged more prominently under the Junker Commission (2014-2019), when the word “migration” was added to the job title of the head of the Directorate-General for Home Affairs (DG HOME). It then became an integral part of the response to so-called “migration crisis” of 2015, and further expanded with the von der Leyen Commission (2019-2024).

A series of action plans adopted by the European Commission in 2022 and 2023 frame current efforts to externalise the EU’s borders, covering the main routes for irregular journeys to the EU: the Western Balkans and the Central, Western and Eastern Mediterranean. These plans are based on the “whole-of-route-approach”. Described by the Commission as a “major innovation”, it aims to increase cooperation with countries of origin and transit to address “the entire spectrum of situations people may find themselves in”.

Such an approach has in fact been integral to the EU’s external migration control agenda since the adoption of its first comprehensive framework in 2005. Its refurbishing as a novelty echoes the oft-used critique of the EU serving up “old wine in new bottles”, but attention to detail remains crucial for understanding the unfolding nature of this policy agenda. While route-specific plans might differ, a common overall approach can be discerned. It is one that emphasises repressive measures: increased border control and surveillance, accelerated procedures (for example, for asylum or deportation), improved police cooperation against migrant smuggling, agreements with Frontex, and so on. This will make the dangerous and, all too often, deadly migration routes to Europe even more so.

Institutions, agencies and agendas

A range of different EU and member state institutions, bodies and agencies help to develop and implement the EU’s externalisation agenda. The principal focus of this bulletin is the Council of the EU, which we have chosen to focus on for a number of resources: as the “home” of the member states, it sets political priorities for other institutions and agencies to follow; it is one of the EU’s two official co-legislators (alongside the European Parliament); it serves as a site for discussions about the work of other institutions and agencies; and, with limited resources, it is currently impossible to focus on the full range of entities involved in the externalisation agenda. Nevertheless, before looking more closely at the Council, we will highlight here some of the other key players.

Within the European Commission, other than the presidency, the department for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME) and the department for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) are key actors. Commission officials are responsible for negotiating agreements with non-EU states, based on mandates approved by the Council of the EU. These include the recent swathe of non-binding partnerships with countries such as Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt, which encompass a wide range of policy areas, including migration.

In addition, EU diplomacy has developed tremendously since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in 2009. There are now EU delegations and offices in more than one hundred states around the globe, tasked with representing the EU’s interests, including with regard to migration policy. In 2022, the European External Action Service, which oversees the EU delegations, appointed the first Principal Adviser for External Aspects of Migration. The holder of this post – currently Luigi Soreca – is tasked with reinforcing the role of EU delegations on migration-related matters while maintaining close contacts with EU member states, third countries and other EU institutions.

EU development institutions play a central role in both the financing and implementation of projects rolled out in non-EU countries beyond fostering direct “cooperation” with non-EU states. Most of the externalisation strategy is implemented through “migration management capacity-building projects”, such as the building of migration control infrastructures, the provision of training and equipment, as well as advice on how to reform legal and policy frameworks in non-EU countries. For this purpose, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe (NDICI) budget, worth almost €80 billion, is crucial. 10% of the total is supposed to be spent on migration-related projects, alongside funds from a range of other EU budgets. As noted elsewhere in this bulletin, it appears that the EU’s Global Gateway programme – intended to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative – is also providing an umbrella for migration-related projects.

The increasing centrality of aid and development to the externalisation agenda is also apparent in the so-called “Team Europe” approach, one of the latest additions to the externalisation toolbox. This aims to coordinate collective action by EU and member state institutions and agencies by combining funding, diplomacy and political pressure, and was first introduced as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was then adopted for development cooperation. The accountability and transparency of EU and member state action through this approach has raised questions from MEPs, with Spanish MEP for The Left, Sira Rego, highlighting that “civil society has not been involved in the initiatives.”

A range of immigration liaison officers also contribute to EU border externalisation with their work. As representatives of the EU, Frontex or the EU member states, they are posted in non-EU countries and maintain close contact with the authorities of the host country. There has been little detailed scrutiny of their work by civil society organisations, yet their geographical coverage is increasing, as are attempts to improve EU-level coordination of their work. The Belgian Council Presidency is pushing for closer coordination on “the priority countries for their deployments.”

EU agencies also have a role to play in the externalisation agenda – in particular Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency. The agency deploys its own liaison officers in non-EU states, along with a range of other activities: the coordination of networks (for example on risk analysis, or on a variety of migration-related topics through the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community), and also engages in bilateral discussions through fora such as the Frontex-Morocco Mixed Committee. One of the agency’s nine official working groups deals with “External Cooperation and Technical Assistance,” though there is little public information available on the activities of this entity. Perhaps most well-known are Frontex’s operations in third states. Previously restricted to countries bordering an EU state, the agency is now able to deploy border guards in any country with which a status agreement has been concluded with the EU. As this bulletin’s article on Mauritania highlights, reaching such agreements is not necessarily straightforward.

Inside the Council

As noted above, the Council of the EU – home to representatives of the member states as well as a sizeable bureaucracy of its own, the General Secretariat – is currently the primary focus of this bulletin. High-level strategic guidance, political direction and legal approval for EU migration policy come from the European Council (where heads of state and government meet, and a separate institution to the Council of the EU) and the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council (where justice and interior ministers meet to approve legislation and policy). For example, the Council is responsible for approving mandates for negotiations with non-EU states, with negotiations undertaken by Commission officials. Decisions in the JHA Council are prepared by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper), whose work is in turn informed by discussion and decision-making in a host of different working parties.

In the Council, representatives of each EU member state take part in each working party meeting, along with others: for example, Frontex, the Commission, the EU Asylum Agency, or even representatives of external bodies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). The roles of these representatives, and the seniority of the posts they hold, depends on which working party they participate in.

One of the newest structures in the Council for dealing with externalisation is the Working Party on External Aspects of Asylum and Migration (EMWP). The EMWP received its mandate in mid-2021, although it is considered to be a successor to High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration, which started functioning in 1998.

The EMWP is responsible for taking forward discussions on the “tailor-made and mutually beneficial EU approach towards countries and regions of origin,” providing general guidance on improving the externalisation agenda, examining ways to improve cooperation between the EU and member states, and developing EU positions with regard to particular countries. It is tasked to cooperate with SCIFA, IMEX and the Visa Working Party, as well as those dealing with finance and international development. It comes under the remit of the General Affairs Council.

The Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA) was set up following the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999. In 2011 it was described by the Council’s General Secretariat as “an invaluable network for senior officials acting in politically sensitive and fast-developing EU policy field to find solutions to interrelated problems.” In 2015 it was granted a role in overseeing plans “to promote coherence between internal and external aspects of migration.”

As the name suggests, it hold high-level, strategic discussions. At its most recent meeting the agenda covered the evaluation of Frontex, an overview of the “migration and asylum situation” and secondary movements, and the results of a pilot project on the convergence of asylum decision-making.

The Working Party on Integration, Migration and Expulsion (IMEX) is one of 16 official justice and home affairs working parties in the Council, though it is unclear when and why its mandate was granted. According to the Council it “deals with issues related to entry to, exit from and integration in the EU.” For those purposes, it meets in different formats – for example, IMEX (Admission) or IMEX (Expulsion), the latter being most relevant for this project. At the most recent meeting of the IMEX Expulsion working party, discussions were held on “making the returns system more effective,” the official evaluation of Frontex, and the repeal or imposition of visa sanctions on countries deemed insufficiently cooperative with deportations from the EU.

As with IMEX, the Council’s list of preparatory bodies does not provide a reference for the mandate of the Working Party on Frontiers, but it has been in operation for quite some time. It deals “in particular with measures relating to the crossing of external and internal borders of the Schengen states,” and “questions related to the EU agency for the management of external borders, Frontex.”

The working party discusses both legislation and policy. For example, its meeting in March covered the evaluation of Frontex; agreements between the EU, San Marino and Andorra; reports from Frontex on its activities in the second half of 2023; and the state of play of negotiations for more Frontex working arrangements with third states.

The Visa Working Party “deals with the common visa policy in relation to citizens from non-EU countries subject to a visa requirement.” At its meeting in March, it also discussed the proposed imposition or repeal of visa sanctions, as well as “the future of visa policy” in relation to asylum policy, amongst other things. Visa policy is playing an increasing role in the EU’s relations with non-EU states, with attempts to introduce restrictions on or delays to visa issuance being used to try to encourage cooperation, in particular with deportations from the EU.

Finally, one key new institution in the externalisation landscape is the Operational Coordination Mechanism for the External Dimension of Migration. Known as MOCADEM for its initials in French (mécanisme de coordination opérationnelle pour la dimension extérieure des migrations), it was put in place under the January-June 2022 French Presidency of the Council, and is supposed to coordinate the operational actions agreed following discussions in other Council working parties.

Unlike other Council working parties, documents produced or handled by MOCADEM are not routinely made public or even listed in the Council’s register of documents. However, papers that have been obtained and published by organisations such as Statewatch and give an indication of the array of activities coordinated through the mechanism. They include, amongst many other things:

  • providing vessels or spare parts for vessels, for example for the Tunisian coast guard and so-called Libyan coast guard;
  • high-level political and diplomatic outreach to targeted countries in order to emphasise the priority given to EU migration policy;
  • negotiation and signature of readmission agreements, facilitating deportations from the EU; and
  • providing financial and technical support for border control activities.


EU externalisation is opaque, highly fragmented and continuously evolving - and most importantly, occurring beyond the EU’s borders often far away from public scrutiny. While often portrayed as a “novel” approach within the EU’s repertoire of migration control, it has in fact been part and parcel of the Union’s migration policies since its outset. With internal friction among EU member states over migration issues mounting in recent years, the EU’s push to outsource border control to non-EU countries regained impetus since 2015. The current efforts of EU institutions – in particular the Council and Commission - as well as pre-electoral statements indicate that externalisation will remain a crucial point of common interest amongst member states that remain divided on many other issues related to migration policy.

Meanwhile, the costs of externalisation have are well known. Externalized migration control has been seen to reproduce colonial logics in “cooperation” with non-EU states, foster racialized violence and grave human rights violations faced by people on the move. Externalisation has funded authoritarian regimes, and led to a further distortion of EU development objectives. With these consequences in mind, this bulletin hopes to provide a useful overview of developments in the institutions, starting with the Council, to support targeted and strategic campaigning, advocacy and other initiatives for more just and humane migration and asylum policies.

Chris Jones (Statewatch), collective

Our work is only possible with your support.
Become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.


Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error