The EU’s externalisation of border control policies

This article was written by Thomas Leroux.

From left to right: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Tunisian President Kais Saied, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. – Copyright European Union, 2023.

Over the last few years, in an attempt to stop the influx of migrants coming from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, the EU has been externalising its border policies through lucrative deals signed with nearby third countries. These deals have seen the European Commission president, Ursula Von Der Leyen, travel to Tunisia and Morocco, amongst others, to form agreements, and thereby publicly linking the EU with countries which often have very poor human rights records (Human Rights Watch, 2023).

This series of deals started in May 2016, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey, whereby the latter agreed to take any measures necessary to stop migrants and refugees, who were mainly from Syria, from leaving its shores to enter Greece or Bulgaria. In return, the EU paid a staggering six billion euros to enable Turkey to “improve the humanitarian situation faced by refugees in the country”. Needless to say, this deal mostly did not work in the EU’s favour.

Turkey PM Ahmet Davutoglu signing a deal with the EU in 2016.

Losing deals

For the EU, it’s true to say that the number of people making the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece by boat did decrease slightly after 2016 (but still remains high) (ICG, 2020), due to tighter controls from the Turkish border guards, but for the migrants trying to cross, it made the route more dangerous and more costly. Smugglers increased their prices following the deal, which made them prosper even more than before.

In terms of geopolitics, this also gave Turkish president, Erdoğan, an enormous amount of leverage over the EU, which he, of course, used to his benefit. The Turkish President often threatened and blackmailed the EU with the prospect of opening the Turkish border to all migrants, something that is the EU’s worst nightmare (Reuters, 2020). The Turkish-EU migrant pact also became one of the first recent uses of migrants as a weapon for geopolitical leverage. Belarus and Russia took note, and used similar tactics at the Polish border in 2021. 

The stand-off at the Poland-Belarus border in November 2021. Yuri Shamshur/TASS/ZUMA Press.

These highly lucrative deals once again put the EU in a vulnerable place by exposing the organisation’s weaknesses.

Not having learnt lessons from this previous deal with Turkey, the EU has now signed similar deals with Mauritania (2024), Libya (in 2019), and Tunisia (in 2023) (Politico, 2023). These highly lucrative deals once again put the EU in a vulnerable place by exposing the organisation’s weaknesses. Additionally, in terms of the rights of migrants and their safety, these deals are disastrous. In Tunisia, for instance, Kais Saied, the President of the country, has used an anti-migration and hatred discourse towards people coming from Sub-Saharan Africa to increase his popularity within Tunisia. This has created much documented violence towards Sub-Saharan communities in the country from police, border guards, but also from individual members of civil society riled up by Kais Saied’s comments. 

Sub-Saharan people on the migration route in Sfax in 2023. Al Jazeera.

Effects of the deals

These deals therefore not only weaken the EU in terms of geo-political leverage, endanger migrants, but there is also an effect within the countries with which the EU makes these deals. In Niger, for instance, these migration pacts of externalisation of borders decrease the EU’s popularity within local populations as they are seen as an interference with local politics. Within the West African country, although also due to colonial history, a certain element of the EU-Niger migration deal has led local populations to call for the departure of all foreign borders and interference within the country, thus impacting EU interests. 

A lack of solutions but opportunities for the future

Overall, it is the European Union’s desperation and lack of solutions towards dealing with the so-called migration crisis which has led to these deals, which weaken the institution’s power and international standing. 

It would promote a more open Europe

Creating more safe routes for migrants and implementing more accepting policies towards migrants can be a positive change for the EU. It would promote a more open Europe, respecting human rights and individuals, whilst limiting discrimination. 

The EU was founded upon those principals, and the Schengen area for instance was a step in the right direction towards a borderless world. 

Fortress EU needs to open up for the future and work towards the implementation of its human values beyond its borders.


This article was written as part of the European INTEgreat project, which aims to improve the integration of migrants and refugees in European cities.

ℹ️ INTEgreat is a project that aims to improve the integration of migrant and refugee people in European cities. It brings together 7 organisations and entities across Europe: Ballafon (Italy), Università di Bologna (Italy), Social Hackers Academy (Greece), Synthesis (Cyprus), Doras (Ireland), Limerick City and Country Council (Ireland), and OCC (Spain).

This project is funded by the European Union through the AMIF fund.