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date: 30 September 2022

Migration Cooperation Between Africa and Europe: Understanding the Role of Incentivesfree

Migration Cooperation Between Africa and Europe: Understanding the Role of Incentivesfree

  • Abu Bakarr BahAbu Bakarr BahNorthern Illinois University
  •  and Nikolas EmmanuelNikolas EmmanuelSoka University


The issue of mass migration and north–south relations are increasingly becoming complicated in international relations. In the case of the interactions between Africa and Europe, irregular migration has become a major problem that is also breeding new forms of relations between the two continents. Migration into Europe through the western Mediterranean corridor from Morocco into Spain is a central part in the development of this new relationship. In these changing relations, it is important to ask how the security concerns of mass irregular migration, the emergence of diverse efforts to manage mass migration, and the forms of collaborations that have emerged between the European Union and Spain on the one hand and Morocco on the other hand have had an impact on overall south–north human flows. In particular, this line of inquiry focuses on the way incentives (aid-based, diplomatic, legitimation, etc.) are deployed by Spain and the European Union to ensure that Morocco prevents irregular migrants from crossing into Europe. Overall, it is important to address two kinds of questions relating to the security issues in mass migration and the forms and nature of international collaborations to manage mass migration from Africa to Europe. The intersection of security issues with pragmatic collaboration in international relations is critical to examine. In terms of security, mass irregular migration is tied to human, cultural, and state security concerns. In terms of the management of migration, the various forms of incentives, mainly development assistance and diplomatic support, are used to get Morocco to enforce stringent anti-immigration practices. However, the system of incentives created by actors in the north also creates a form of mutual dependency between Morocco and Europe in a way that enhances the agency of Morocco in its relationship with Spain and the European Union as a whole.


  • Development
  • Diplomacy
  • Foreign Policy
  • Human Rights
  • Political Sociology
  • Security Studies


Since the beginning of the 2000s, global migration has increased significantly.1 According to the Global Trends 2040 assessment reported by the United States National Intelligence Council, in “2020 more than 270 million persons were living in a country to which they have migrated, 100 million more than in 2000—[This] will strain both origin and destination countries to manage the flow and effects” (United States National Intelligence Council, 2021, p. 2). Some of the most significant movements have been of irregular migrants2 crossing the Mediterranean Sea, from North Africa and Turkey into Europe. In 2015 alone, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, over one million individuals crossed into Europe through various points in the Mediterranean Sea. This has had an important impact on both regions and stressed the political and cultural fabric there. Migration into Europe in particular has been a central political issue in the European Union (EU) and its member states for some time, but especially since 2015 with the substantial increase in immigration into the region. As a reaction, leaders have tried to develop ways to externalize the management of irregular migrant flows, and to develop partnerships with source and transit countries to help manage and reduce the flow of immigrants into Europe. Developing such North–South cooperation has clearly not been easy. To overcome these problems, the EU and its member states such as Spain have increasingly used a variety of incentives to build relationships and encourage a number of Mediterranean countries to cooperate and try to reduce migrant outflows. At the height of the migrant upsurge in 2016, Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the European Commission, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU proposes “to use a mix of positive and negative incentives to reward those third countries willing to cooperate effectively with us and to ensure that there are consequences for those who do not” help Europe curb northward migration (Guarascio & Baczynska, 2016). Understanding this incentives approach to reducing and managing migration is at the core of the research presented here.

It is critical to look specifically at the Morocco–Spain migrant route along the western Mediterranean corridor, a particularly important route for irregular migration beginning in 2015. In this regard, it is important to place the focus on the way incentives (aid-based, diplomatic, legitimation, etc.) are created and deployed and how those incentives shape the relations between Morocco and the EU, and most notably Spain (Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). Moreover, critical examination of the way incentives impact the application of immigration policies and the flow of irregular migrants into Europe is necessary. The application of incentives to halt irregular migration into Europe evokes critical questions about mass migration, security, and the nature of international cooperation. Varying forms of security become critical to the debate, notably the security of European countries, the transit countries, and the migrants themselves. Clearly, the issue of mass migration raises questions about the security of the migrants and the push-pull factors in the stream of migration into the EU from and through North Africa. However, it is important to add that a wide variety of other security issues are brought up when one launches into a conversation about immigration.

In essence, it is important to explore how the political-economic dynamics between Morocco and the EU along with a key EU member state, Spain, impact policy and practice on irregular migration and the flow of refugees across the western Mediterranean basin. The EU and Spain build their partnerships with countries like Morocco largely on an incentives approach, based primarily on packages of foreign aid, diplomatic initiatives, as well as a variety of moves designed to build confidence and deepen cooperation between the partners in a more mutually beneficial relationship, one of them being legitimation. These interactions cannot be reduced to simple transactions, such as with conditionality (Emmanuel, 2010, 2015). It is important to note that while incentives may look like conventional aid, the most useful reference for understanding incentives is conditionalities. In a way, incentives and conditionalities all fall into the larger notion of aid. However, the context and terms under which aid is given can actually make aid a conditionality or an incentive. Building on the works on conditionalities, this article brings in the notion of incentives to examine a specific context and terms under which aid is given in the form of an incentive. The desire to control mass migration becomes the context that makes what might normally be aid to actually become incentive. As is shown in this article, incentives build far-reaching, long-term, and cooperative relationships that among other things try to enhance state capacity in the targeted country, as well as to dissuade migration from the source and transit countries. Beyond foreign aid and diplomatic efforts, incentives also include specific legitimacy initiatives designed to enhance the role of the targeted actor in the international system. Such incentives are offered to countries in return for their cooperation on particular policy areas (Teodorescu, 2017). Attempts to normalize Moroccan control over Western Sahara provide a clear example of the question of incentives in migration policies: how has an incentives approach been deployed in order to build a policy framework that can facilitate cooperation and curb irregular migration along the western Mediterranean basin? Can incentives in practice be a useful manner to develop cooperation on this policy area between the EU and Spain on the one hand and Morocco on the other? Notably, three core questions are at the center of this research. First, how do the EU and its member states conceptualize security and trigger an incentives regime? Second, how and why did EU and Spanish collaboration with Morocco shift from one involving conventional aid to that of an incentives approach? Finally, what role did Spain play in reorienting the relation toward incentives? The discussion on this will be broken down into four main sections: (a) conceptualizing mass migration and various theories about security; (b) incentives and policy formation on irregular migration; (c) migration trends from Morocco toward the EU and Spain; and (d) the role of incentives in Moroccan–EU/Spanish cooperation on migration.

Mass Migration and Security: Human, Cultural, and State Security

To better understand the shift in the relations between the EU and the bloc’s neighbors across the Mediterranean, it is important to appreciate the way in which security has come to be viewed in light of mass migration from and through North Africa in particular to the EU (using mainly Spain as a key destination and transit country). Mass migration and the responses of the EU and Morocco can be explained though three distinct types of security imperatives, each of which underlie the complex collaboration and incentive system that has been developed between the EU and Spain on the one hand and Morocco on the other. These include (a) human security, (b) cultural security, and (c) state security. While the notions of human and state security are well developed in the literature, the issue of cultural security needs further theorizing. Human security issues have mostly been associated with oppressive rule, environmental degradation, and new wars (Bah, 2013, 2017a; Commission on Human Security, 2003; UN, 1987). Human security problems in the Horn of Africa, West Africa, as well as other parts of the African continent, not to mention West and Central Asia have triggered mass migration of vulnerable peoples who have been migrating in order to seek refuge in Europe. While migration is seen as a personal and family solution to the problems of human security, mass migration of refugees from mostly Muslim and non-white countries has triggered cultural security concerns in a number of countries across the EU. It is also important to note the crucial issue of economic security, especially in the way mass migration impacts the economies of host countries (Borjas, 1995, 2003; Buonanno, 2017). While the literature tends to be divided on the economic benefits and costs of mass migration to host countries, the authors do not see irregular migration as primarily an economic security issue for Europe. Rather the authors see it more as a cultural and state security issue.

The idea of cultural security has been used primarily in three ways: (a) contestations over works of arts in wars, trafficking, and decolonization (Nemeth, 2007); (b) cultural diplomacy and issues of intercultural exchanges (Bélanger, 1999); and (c) issues of identity in migration, notably in the host country or multiethnic country (Bah, 2003; Cotter, 1999; Nowicka, 2014; Tehranian, 2004). This third line of work, though not well developed, does address issues of mass migration and the problems of preserving national identity and national character. Following these works and Rogers Brubaker’s extensive scholarship on migration and nationalism issues, notably in Europe, cultural security may be viewed as the entrenchment and reproduction of the kinds of values, norms, and practices that have maintained the national identity and cohesion of European countries, especially in light of mass migration from countries that are culturally different (Brubaker, 1996, 2009a, 2009b). As the United States National Intelligence Council report notes, “cultural and economic insecurity stemming from globalization has fueled nationalist forces . . . The migrant crisis in 2015 also prompted a surge in nationalist forces in several other European countries . . . where majority populations fear cultural change and economic competition” (United States National Intelligence Council, 2021, p. 76). While EU countries have had a significant number of migrants from developing countries, the dramatic rise in racial and religious minorities in EU countries has raised concerns about both the cultural and social stability of EU societies and their social welfare systems. For example, the vast majority of irregular migrants using the western Mediterranean route in 2020 are from Muslim countries. Figure 1 clearly illustrates this dynamic.

Figure 1. Migrant origins 2020 (western Meditereanan route).

Source: UNHCR, 2021.

Since the 1990s, immigration has taken center stage in electoral politics across Europe. In the media, negative perceptions of immigration abound. Perceptions that immigrants are driving down wages, taking advantage of social security funds, exacerbating crime, and threatening social and cultural cohesion abound among the discourses of a wide variety of nationalist and far right political formations. This cultural security fear goes back to the 1990s when EU countries started to introduce more stringent rules for entry into their countries for people from developing countries, especially Africa. However, the tremendous human insecurity propelled a new kind of migrant risk-taking that tough EU immigration laws could not stop. By venturing to cross the Mediterranean Sea, migrants show their desperation. However, this further frightened Europeans and led to talk of “invasion” among nationalist and far right wing political parties. According to the United States National Intelligence Council assessment publication Global Trends 2040, “[m]igration is likely to increase the salience of identity issues that divide societies in receiving countries and may fuel . . . conflicts” (United States National Intelligence Council, 2021, p. 80). This is no clearer than in Europe in the wake of the 2015 surge in migration.

Some in European countries not only felt vulnerable but also helpless in the face of the emerging dire humanitarian tragedies, dramatic rise in the number of cultural “others,” and potential risk of terrorism. This has prompted extensive outbidding among political parties and candidates in Europe, each emphasizing various policy plans to reduce immigration. Such policy platforms built on stemming the flow of immigrants have become central pillars in political campaigning among a wide variety of political parties across the member states of the EU. As a result, for the first time since the end of the Franco era in Spain an extreme right-wing party (i.e., Vox) was able to play on public fears about migration and make significant electoral gains in the 2019 general elections at the height of a surge of immigration in that country (Hedgecoe, 2019). In an effort not to look weak, the central government in Madrid began hardening its approach on migration. It is this combination of EU cultural security fear and humanitarian tragedy that prompted the EU, and notably Spain and Italy, to seek new allies across the Mediterranean and new approaches to halting mass migration into the EU. Starting in the mid/late-2010s, the EU sought to find partners among countries that were somehow concerned about their own security, but strong enough to restrict the flow of immigrants into the EU. A notable country on the Mediterranean front has been Morocco.

Mass migration, especially from predominantly Muslim countries, has also raised issues of state security for western countries, including European, and transit countries (Bah, 2006). State security concerns are largely tied to terrorism and criminal networks. State security, in this context, refers to the potential vulnerabilities of European countries to terrorist infiltration through irregular migration and the potential vulnerabilities of transit countries to social and political destabilization resulting from criminal networks involved in trafficking. While the vulnerability of the state in this sense is not about the collapse of the state or civil war, it is nonetheless very critical and can potentially increase the kinds of economic and social problems that may lead to the growth of deeper social and political instability. While traditional notions of state security are rooted in domestic and international terrorism (Bah, 2017a; Franck, 2001; Kaldor, 2005), state security in terms of the vulnerabilities of countries to transnational criminal networks and humanitarian problems are also important factors.

In essence, the convergence of cultural security concerns with the state security concerns has produced a peculiar form of international assistance and cooperation between Europe and Morocco. This consists of a combination of development incentives, including economic and security aid, along with targeted diplomatic initiatives, presented to Morocco as a “deal” in exchange for Rabat’s adoption of anti-migrant policies and halting the flow of irregular mass migrants into the EU. This deal, often presented as aid, is essentially a form of incentive. Instead of framing aid in terms of conditionalities, aid is framed in terms of incentives. For the EU, giving incentives is the cost of enforcing its anti-immigration policies, even in the face of a number of deep humanitarian crises—albeit through a third—party state actor. Furthermore, in essence, incentives are a way to keep cultural outsiders out and thereby ensure European security. For Morocco, the EU incentives come in a variety of forms of payment provided in return for doing the morally difficult task of arresting and returning people fleeing civil wars and dire economic crises. However, Morocco is able to present its role as simply an enforcer of domestic and international laws in the fight against organized crime and terrorism. Moreover, it gains added ability and support to suppress potentially destabilizing groups within its country and around its borders without criticism. Incentives do not address human security as the incentives are not typically directed at solving the core causes of human insecurity of the migrant-sending countries. In a way, incentives entail redirecting and augmenting a traditional aid approach given to the transit countries along the migration flow. Instead of blaming transit countries and responding with sanctions and conditionalities against them or cutting off aid to them, the EU sees the vulnerabilities of the transit countries and collaborates with their elite to produce pragmatic, albeit temporary, solutions to their security risks.

Aid and Beyond: An Incentives Approach to Cooperation on Irregular Migration

Aid comes in a variety of ways that are context specific. Aid can be given in less contentious contexts as regular aid or framed in terms of conditionalities in more contentious cases. In more delicate cases, aid can be framed in terms of incentives (Crumm, 1995). Although economic aid is clearly crucial in the incentives toolkit, it is not the only strategy available (Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). Other forms of foreign assistance and diplomatic gestures further provide leverage for the donor to encourage change in the recipient country. Beyond this, it is important to note that the relationship between development aid and migration is complex. In theory, foreign aid should help spur development and ameliorate a key push factor for migration—low levels of economic development, employment opportunities, and poverty. So fundamentally, aid should represent an important part of a comprehensive migration policy, but it is not the only available choice in the toolkit. Diplomatic incentives and legitimation initiatives, such as the normalization of Moroccan control of Western Sahara, are also important. Nonetheless, aid should help development and therefore lower the desire to migrate because of the increased opportunities at home. Economic aid is clearly a part of an incentives approach to confronting migration. That is to say, the policy of offering incentives has two clear parts to its equation. One is the targeting of aid toward particular objectives, and the second is the offering of this aid (as well as other benefits) in return for a change in a key policy area, in this case a shift to help stem irregular migration from source and transit countries. Aid is not just offered in the traditional sense, it is used as an incentive designed to provide leverage for the donor over the recipient in key policy areas, in this case migration. This is very similar to a conditionality approach to foreign aid in which the donor expects a change in policy behavior in return from the aid recipient (Emmanuel, 2010). No reform, no aid. A conditionality approach was first adopted in the 1980s with World Bank and IMF in return for loans attached to structural adjustment and was aimed mainly at economic objectives. It was then applied on a wide scale by key foreign aid donors after the end of the Cold War to push political goals like multiparty governance as well as economic objectives like liberal pro-market economic reforms. Conditionality had significant problems and did not lead to the intended political and economic reforms many donors expected (Emmanuel, 2010, 2013). Similarly, should we expect an incentives approach to work to curtail irregular migration or suffer similar pitfalls? It is important to ask if aid incentives can help reduce migration? This leads to two additional questions. First, can aid help suppress the push factors involved with migration? Second, can migrant transit and source countries be convinced to help stem irregular migration on their territory or at their borders?

As a part of an incentives approach, a successful policy of economic aid-based international cooperation on migration that provides leverage for donors to produce policy change in the recipients hinges on three notions. One, that poverty, underdevelopment, and poor governance are some of the most prominent causes of migration that compel people to leave their home countries and seek new ones abroad. Two, that economic development can assist in reducing such push factors. Three, that foreign aid can play a pivotal role in facilitating the economic development process and spurring the adoption of good governance practices, therefore reducing migrant outflows. There is growing evidence in the literature that not all, but only specific types of properly targeted development assistance can help ameliorate the fundamental causes of migration such as the lack of economic opportunities and political rights (Arndt et al., 2010; Bermeo & Leblang, 2015; Morrison, 1982). Such targeted aid offered as an incentive appears to be able to improve political institutions, governance, and strengthen civil society, addressing the associated central problems that frequently lead people to migrate abroad (Jones & Tarp, 2016). Economic aid is an important part of an incentive approach. If properly deployed it should improve livelihoods in the recipients as well as build cooperation on migration between source, transit, and destination countries.

Accordingly, this debate over how to best target aid and how to deploy it as an incentive to build cooperation on reducing migration can be clearly seen in the relationships developing around the Mediterranean in recent years. The political crisis that has resulted in Europe over increased migration has had a clear impact on the European development aid agenda. Aid is more and more being used as a part of an incentives approach. That is to say that the EU and its member states are increasingly using development assistance to accomplish a reduction in migration. This began in earnest since the beginning of the migration crisis in the 2010s. From these experiences, it appears that this aid only has an effect on migration when it is targeted toward improving governance, creating jobs, and bolstering civil society . However, it is important to note that institutional quality and governance matters. As Dutta and Roy (2011) conclude, the quality of political institutions and of governance more generally affects migratory streams. High-quality institutions appear to be “essential for a country’s growth and development prospects and affect the population’s sense of wellbeing” (Dutta & Roy, 2011, p. 443). This should reduce the desire to migrate abroad.

Inversely, individuals are much more likely to leave countries with lower levels of institutional quality (Ariu et al., 2016). More specifically, research indicates that poor governance and corruption act as a push factor of migration as it contributes to more economic problems and insecurity (Poprawe, 2015; Uys & Senekal, 2015). Investing in good governance is a clear way to counter irregular migration and tackling a key push factor in migration (Fransje, 2017). Donors can help reduce migrant inflows by targeting their foreign aid and adopting policies that promote development (Bermeo & Leblang, 2015). (Gamso & Yuldashev, 2017, p. 1) point out that “findings indicate that governance aid is accompanied by reductions in the emigration rates of developing countries, whereas other types of aid have no discernible relationship to emigration. These results suggest that some, but not all, types of foreign aid can act as an effective and development-friendly immigration policy.” Accordingly, a number of EU member states have tried to manage migration flows by making their “financial allocations devoted to tackling the root causes” of migration such as good governance and economic development (European Commission, 2016).

The argument to provide more positive incentives to source and transit countries to stem irregular migration follows on a failed conditionality approach in the 1990s and 2000s (Emmanuel, 2010). Accordingly, as noted, during a 2002 European Council meeting the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Spain argued that the EU should condition its aid to countries that do not make sufficient enough effort to reduce migration to Europe. This context (i.e., a desire to stop mass migration) is at the heart of the incentives approach. While the policy proposal failed to convince the other council members, its logic had an impact. Instead of reducing aid or explicitly stipulating steps that must be first taken before aid is given, aid is given and even increased while tacitly making known the desired policy outcomes. Indeed, properly framed economic aid can act as an incentive (in contrast to a threat) in getting origin and transit countries to adopt policies that can curtail outward migration—policies beyond the officially stated goal of the donor-provided aid package.

A range of foreign policy tools are available to induce international cooperation from a more positive perspective than that of conditionality—i.e., the threat to reduce or cut off aid if policy compliance is not met (Elbadawi & Sambanis, 2002; Jenttleson, 2000; Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). This is especially the case with the issue of migration from Africa into Europe along the western Mediterranean corridor. Once the strategic options are widened to include less coercive initiatives, it became clear that international actors have a wide range of meaningful alternatives at their disposal to develop partnerships on a wide variety of issues (Emmanuel, 2015; Emmanuel & Rothchild, 2007; Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). The overall argument offered is that incentives, broadly defined, can produce lasting cooperative relationships (Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). That is to say, offering incentives like monetary assistance in the form of grants and loans, technical assistance, or initiatives to improve diplomatic relations (e.g., legitimation of behaviors such as the acceptance of Moroccan control of Western Sahara) can facilitate international cooperation between different actors, such as states or multilateral bodies. The objective of such an incentives approach, as referred to in this article, is to encourage a shift in behavior toward cooperation on a particular policy area—here, migration. In the example at hand, various players (mainly states and international organizations like the European Union) in the international system are trying to facilitate cooperation on managing irregular migration across their mutual borders. How can an incentives approach be conceptualized? This will be done by examining how these diverse foreign policy tools function, not to mention how they are operationalized in this particular instance in order to facilitate cooperation over migration between Morocco (as a transit and origin country) and the actors in the north, primarily the EU and Spain (as migrant destinations).

An incentives approach can play an important role in encouraging mutual understanding and cooperation. However, for all of their obvious potential, incentives have received little attention among scholars, regardless of their relatively widespread use by policymakers. Simply defined, incentives are actions that are used to influence another actor’s behavior. Furthermore, Cortright (1997) and Rothchild (1997), not to mention Rothchild and Emmanuel (2010), all view incentives as rewards that are offered in the expectation of getting something in return, encouraging a deeper relationship between the recipient and receiver. Such incentives consist of a variety of “structural arrangements, distributive or symbolic rewards or punishments (e.g. disincentives) aimed to encourage a target state or movement in a given conflict to shift their priorities and agree to compromise on the major issues in contention” (Ilchman & Uphoff, 1969, p. 52; Rothchild, 1997, p. 19). Incentives attempt “to raise the opportunity cost of continuing on the previous course of action by changing the calculation of costs and benefits” (Cortright, 1997, p. 273). Put differently, according to Griffiths and Barnes, incentives are measures that “can be applied to encourage or persuade one or all of the parties to a conflict to cooperate by introducing rewards for compliance” (Griffiths & Barnes, 2008, p. 11). Therefore, incentives are rewards or the offer of a reward. It is hoped that these conciliatory gestures will “lead to cooperative responses” (Lapidus & Tsalik, 1998, p. 57). Accordingly, along the lines of the subject examined here, donors such as Spain or the EU can use economic and security assistance and diplomatic initiatives as incentives to build more cooperative relations with their partners across the Mediterranean.

However, an incentives approach does not entail a simple quid pro quo. In line with this, David Cortright (1997, p. 6), who analyzes how states use incentives toward other states, defines an incentive as “the granting of a political or economic benefit in exchange for a specified policy adjustment by the recipient nation.” Here, an incentive is the act of granting a benefit with a clear expectation of receiving a policy change in return. For example, aid conditionality is one type of incentive—a punitive or negative incentive (Emmanuel, 2010, 2017). The objective is to manage conflict and noncooperation by facilitating bargaining relationships with diverse types of enticements, such as foreign aid. The overall aim is to shift policies and align interests through the exchange of benefits like economic assistance. That is to say, under this type of approach, benefits are offered by one of the parties to encourage a change in behavior in the other party, which is “sufficiently dissatisfied with their present costs . . . or future prospects” of the current situation (Zartman, 2001, p. 301). The overall goal of using incentives is to alter the costs of continuing down a path that is not desired by one of the parties in the relationship (Cortright, 1997; Stedman et al., 2002). Incentives aim to do this by expanding the benefits by altering the current relationship. Yet, the reward would not have been offered if the “sender” did not expect something in return from the “recipient,” such as a particular kind of behavior (Suhrke & Samset, 2007).

Incentives should not be viewed as hard power. Such methods try to go beyond the scope of realist international relations scholars, who concentrate predominantly on the deployment of hard power options. Maintaining close cooperation between states and groups of state cannot be accomplished with such hard power (coercion) alone, but instead, and perhaps more successfully, with soft power alternatives (incentives) (Finnemore, 2003, pp. 9–10; Nye, 2004; Rothchild & Emmanuel, 2010). The provision of foreign aid and using it to leverage further policy change outside of the initial policy area of the provided assistance could be construed as being coercive. The aid recipient may seem forced to undertake the requested changes asked by the donor in exchange for money, which is perhaps destined for another purpose. Yet, assistance is frequently provided to facilitate difficult policy change. Meaning that aid helps facilitate policy alternatives, which could not normally be attained, to become achievable. The targeted actor more than likely prefers rewards that facilitate change over punishments that force it into being. Such an approach leads to cooperation and goes beyond a hard power approach. Incentives, inducements, and rewards are generally viewed more positively by the targeted actors than are punishments and coercion. Incentives can therefore lead to less resentment compared with more belligerent actions. Incentives (including economic aid, diplomatic initiatives, legitimation efforts, etc.) can lead to more cooperative behavior and help develop accommodation in key, yet contentious, policy areas such as migration.

In sum, an incentives approach represents a range of strategies that aim to promote political bargaining and cooperation on a wide variety of policy areas, including migration. Various types of development aid, such as grants, loans, security assistance, and technical assistance form key elements in the incentives toolkit. However, they are not the only strategy available. Diplomatic initiatives and efforts to increase international legitimation of targeted regimes are also critical in facilitating bargaining. Using diplomacy to build deeper international partnerships or widen trade ties, for example, can promote cooperation in other issue areas. Furthermore, the legitimization of questionable regime behavior by key international partners, such as Spain’s or the EU’s growing acceptance of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, or help in Morocco’s fight against illicit drug flows, may be able to convince the targeted regime to be more cooperative on helping on issues such as migration. Widening the spectrum of political bargaining options and overall cooperation is the goal of an incentives approach. While economic aid is an important part of such efforts, the overall range of policy options are broad. Nonetheless, the goal of the entire available incentives toolkit still remains the facilitation of political bargaining and international cooperation.

Irregular Migration: The Trends Along the Western Mediterranean Corridor

Irregular migration routes are fluid. If one network receives too much attention from border enforcement, another group quickly finds a new route to take its place. This is evident in the shifts in migrant flows around the Mediterranean since the mass arrivals of people beginning in early 2015. Migration routes to Europe have increasingly moved toward the western Mediterranean (Morocco to Spain). As a result of this change, Morocco has also become a key origin, transit, and destination country for irregular migrants heading to Europe (Dworkin, 2020).

The ties that bind Morocco to Europe and perhaps more specifically to Spain are deep. One obvious reason is their proximity to each other. Beyond that, Morocco has a unique, and to some extent, privileged position with the EU and with a number of its member states (mainly Spain and France) relative to other countries in North Africa, if not all of Africa. This profound relationship has five key dimensions: geographic closeness, long-standing historic sociocultural ties, extensive trade and economic aid, as well as long-standing migration flows (de Haas, 2007, p. 51). Yet, in terms of the rise in irregular migration, this partnership has become increasingly strained in recent years. This is because in 2018, Spain became a progressively critical entry point for migrants crossing into Europe, surpassing Italy and Greece.

To enlist help from Rabat in stemming the surge in irregular migration, Europe and Spain have been using diplomatic support and donor aid (the two main types of incentives) to propel Morocco into becoming a regional power, acting as a key development partner with the rest of Africa, and helping to reduce migration into Spain and beyond. However, at what cost in return? Rabat has been able to use its leverage with Spain and the EU, stemming from European desire to cultivate a partnership based on its own interests.

It is important to ask, how have recent relations (the use of incentives) between Morocco, Spain, and the EU affected the number of arrivals in Europe from along the western Mediterranean corridor? (Brenner et al., 2018; Norman, 2016). Across the Mediterranean, north–south cooperation, based mainly on incentives (in the form of foreign aid, diplomatic and legitimacy support, etc.) pushing for tougher border enforcement and attempting to reduce the push-pull factors for migration, has brought the numbers of migrants from Morocco and beyond crossing the Mediterranean down recently (Gamso & Yuldashev, 2017, p. 2). This has been at a significant human cost, mainly in terms of human rights, but also in terms of a failure to confront the causes that make people want to leave their country of origin in the first place—primarily lack of economic opportunities and poor governance at home.

The change in behavior of a number of African countries such as Morocco has been facilitated by the provision of significant monetary and legitimacy incentives put forward by northern partners like Spain and the European Union. Through the provision of various types of incentives, the EU and its member states have externalized their migration policy and practice. As maritime arrivals of migrants across the Mediterranean began to climb in 2015, policymakers in the European Union struggled to mount a coordinated reaction. From the start of the migration crisis in the mid-2010s, aid incentives and legitimacy/diplomatic incentives played an important part in the overall EU response to the crisis.

This incentive approach followed up on EU and Italian moves to provide support to the weak Libyan central government in Tripoli, as well as to bolster the various militia groups that dot the North African country and control various coastal cities and ports. This funding resembled a protection racket. Assistance was given as a trade-off, in order for the numerous armed groups (behaving very similarly to organized crime groups) in Libya to react and try to reduce migration from Libyan shores. The aid from Italy and the EU further legitimized the various Libyan militia groups and their dubious behaviors. This led to a considerable number of migrants being detained in Libya under extremely harsh conditions, leading to widespread human rights abuses. Nonetheless, this reality combined with the ongoing brutal civil war in Libya, not to mention the increasing knowledge about the extremely perilous journey across the central Mediterranean route, added up to a dramatic reduction in the number of irregular migrant departures from the Libyan coasts. As a result, migration flows moved west across the Mediterranean toward safer and more open Moroccan routes.

This shift led to a dramatic increase in the flows of irregular migrants along the western Mediterranean route into Spain. Spain subsequently surpassed Italy in 2018 as the first point of entry for Europe-bound migrants (Fine & Torreblanca, 2019). In reaction, the EU and Spain moved to develop an enhanced partnership with Morocco on migration, focusing mainly on border management (Africa Research Bulletin, 2018, p. 21963). According to Frontex data, in Table 1, Spain became a main entry point for irregular migrants to Europe in 2018, mainly coming from Morocco. This was after Italy closed its ports, Libyan groups started detaining migrants, and Greece began sending migrants back to Turkey under the 2016 agreement reached with the European Union (Boutreux, 2019;).

Table 1. Irregular Migration Arrivals Across the Key Mediterranean Routes

Source: Frontex (2022) and UNHCR (2022).

In terms of mass irregular migration, the Morocco–Spain corridor saw much lower overall flows of individuals between 2010 and 2014, especially considering the dramatic spike in arrivals in that same year from Turkey. Nonetheless, as both the overseas route to Italy (central Mediterranean) as well as that to Greece from Turkey (eastern Mediterranean) saw important decreases, the path from Morocco experienced the opposite, regular growth. Notably, in 2018 the Morocco–Spain corridor saw drastic increases, with numbers surpassing both the Libya–Italy and Turkey–Greece routes.

As seen in Table 1, in 2016 irregular migration flows began to decline sharply along the eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey to Greece) and shifted toward various networks from Morocco to Spain in the beginning of 2017 (becoming the main migrant passing point from Africa to Europe in 2018). This came after the EU and several countries such as Turkey and Libya acted to restrict movement along the central and eastern Mediterranean routes. This shift began between 2015 and 2016. Irregular migration along the central Mediterranean Sea route fell significantly after 2016. This was primarily due to the chaos caused by the civil war in Libya and the crackdown by the weak central government in Tripoli as well as by various militias throughout the country. The arrangements between these two transit/source countries (Libya and Turkey) and the EU led to a significant reduction of migration flows and subsequent falls in arrivals along the eastern and central Mediterranean corridors. However, the flow increased along the western Mediterranean (Morocco–Spain) corridor necessitating European pressure on Morocco to help stem the flow of immigrants into Europe.

The number of migrants trying to enter Europe went generally down along all three Mediterranean routes and have converged at much lower levels than in the mid-2010s. Since 2019, a relative decline has also been sustained along the western Mediterranean (Morocco–Spain) corridor (see Figure 2). This is primarily due to the success of the dismantling of smuggling networks as a result of the increasingly close security cooperation and information exchange between Morocco and Spain, and the EU—all driven by the incentives system (Kingdom of Morocco, 2019).

Figure 2. Number of irregular migrant arrivals in Spain by month (January 2009 to July 2021).

Source: UNHCR, n.d.

However, for many, the trip to Europe does not begin in Morocco. A typical journey using the western Mediterranean corridor starts in West Africa, traversing Mali or Niger, then onto Algeria, before crossing the officially closed border to enter Morocco. After reaching Morocco, some migrants attempt to get into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla in North Africa which are surrounded by Moroccan territory and sit on the edge of southern Mediterranean Sea. These are the only land borders between Africa and the EU. Others instead try to reach Europe (mainly southern Spain or Gibraltar) by boat. At the Strait’s narrowest point, the distance between North Africa and continental Spain is 7.7 nautical miles, or about 14 kilometers, significantly closer and obviously less dangerous than the sea crossing between the Libyan coast and Italian islands, such as Lampedusa, which are around 252 nautical miles, or about 465 km apart at its closest point. Three critical paths are notable in the movement of people along the western Mediterranean corridor: (a) the Spanish maritime coastline of approximately 1,000 kilometers in length, (b) Ceuta and Melilla—Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco, and (c) the British territory—the Strait of Gibraltar.

From the data in Table 1 and Figures 1 and 2, it appears that the decline of arrivals along the other Mediterranean routes further to the east has led to an increase of arrivals in Spain from North Africa, particularly from Morocco. This change saw an important rise in land-based crossings into the Spanish enclaves in Morocco of Ceuta and Melilla as well as a significant increase in sea-based passages across the Strait of Gibraltar into continental Europe and Spain. With this reality, Spain surpassed Italy in 2018 as the first point of entry for Europe-bound migrants from Africa.

Data available from the UNHCR indicate that in 2020 the migrants coming through the western Mediterranean corridor via Morocco were most often from Algeria and Morocco, but also important numbers from Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal (see Figure 1). Interviews of migrants in three transit countries (Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) conducted by the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) from mid-2017 to mid-2018 collaborated the movement patterns seen in the UNHCR data. The migrants and refugees that the MMC group interviewed in these three Sahelian countries increasingly began to say that they were heading to Spain via Morocco, not Italy via Libya, beginning in 2017 (Brenner et al., 2018).

However, according to the data presented in Figure 2, the number of migrants arriving in Spain from Morocco dropped after Madrid and Brussels signed several important agreements with Rabat in 2018 and 2019. These deals provided aid and diplomatic/legitimacy incentives that benefitted the Moroccan government and convinced elites in Rabat to cooperate with its partners in Europe and to crackdown on irregular migrants departing from its territory. As a result, the European Commission and Spain have developed what is referred to as an “enhanced partnership” with Morocco, particularly on migration issues. The resulting deal included a comprehensive development aid package, along with money for border management and technical assistance.

Incentives: Cooperation on Migration Between Morocco–Spain and the EU

Incentives go beyond the simple provision of economic aid. For example, the significant decrease in migrant flows from North Africa into Italy resulted primarily from the increased cooperation (facilitated by an incentives approach—mainly via the provision of a variety of types of aid, diplomacy, and international legitimation efforts targeting the constrained central government in Tripoli and some key militia groups that control various swaths of territory across the country) between the EU and certain of its member states (namely Italy) and key actors in Libya, which has been a key embarkation country along the central Mediterranean corridor (European Commission, 2019, October 16). Such a comprehensive incentives method was also used to facilitate cooperation between the EU and Spain with their partner Morocco starting in 2018. This incentives approach appears to be working more than simply threatening aid conditionality, used previously to encourage cooperation. As former Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell (subsequently the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission) indicated in 2019, “Morocco is helping us” with cooperation on migration (Bathke, 2019). This close Spanish and EU relations with Morocco played an important role in the drop in irregular immigration across the western Mediterranean route after its peak in 2018. It is important to note, however, that Libya is not Morocco. Morocco is not suffering from a dire civil war and state collapse. That is to say, Rabat’s capacity as a state to control its territory is significantly higher than Libya’s. If incentives could work in Libya, one should expect that they could work even better with Rabat. Indeed, incentives were successfully used to build cooperation between the two North African cases and Europe. But what does this cooperation look like?

Cooperation on migration between Morocco, Spain, and the EU is based on two types of incentives: economic and technical aid and diplomatic initiatives. At its heart, this policy strategy consists of arranging agreements that aim to reduce irregular migration into Europe from the countries of origin or transit. These types of arrangements based on incentives are not new. Over the past seven years a number of such pacts have been reached, such as the Khartoum Process (November 2014), the Valletta Agreement (November 2015), and the EU–Turkey refugee deal (March 2016). These agreements are based on an understanding that partner countries will prevent irregular migration, in return for incentives, such as development aid, security assistance, and diplomatic initiatives aimed at increasing the international legitimacy of the targeted state (Molenaar, 2017).

In line with an incentives approach, Rabat has received significant amounts of foreign aid and legitimacy incentives from Spain and the EU in recent years to control this complicated situation and reduce irregular migration and the flow of refugees into Europe (Teevan, 2018). In addition to trying to build Morocco’s regional and international legitimacy (tarnished somewhat by human rights abuses at home and its annexation of Western Sahara in 1975), Spain has been increasingly advocating that the EU help add to Spanish bilateral aid by increasing EU support from Brussels. Morocco, as a result, has been receiving larger and larger amounts of funding from the EU and Spain to do its part in trying to control the situation of irregular migration from its territory. This has led to a good working relationship and, as a result, a reduction of irregular migration from Morocco into Europe.

Morocco never admits buying into the idea that the support from the EU and Spain was an incentive to bring down the flow of irregular migration heading to the EU via Spain. In a 2019 interview with El País, Khalid Zerouali, the Moroccan head of border control and migration, indicated that Morocco’s efforts to fight irregular migration are “unilateral” and motivated by a sense “of responsibility,” further saying that, “Morocco has never made funding a preliminary requisite.” However, in an apparent direct contradiction to that, Zerouali went on in the interview to say that the EU’s €140 million offered to Morocco in 2019 to help curb migration into Europe was “a good start” and suggested that future talks with Brussels will determine the compensation that Morocco deems appropriate (Martín, 2019). The government in Madrid, nonetheless, felt that it had a right to demand greater cooperation from Rabat after Spain pulled strings in Brussels to get the EU to provide more aid to Morocco (Martín & Abellán, 2019). Moroccan officials rapidly responded to the Spanish and EU aid and legitimacy incentives. Shortly after the signing of the aid agreements, the number of migrant arrivals into Spain from Morocco plummeted. Within two weeks of these agreements with the EU, Rabat began forcibly removing potential migrants from departure assembly points on their northern Mediterranean coast and outside the fences of Ceuta and Melilla (Kaiser, 2019).

It is important to note that neither Spain nor the EU specify exactly what Morocco has been asked to do in order to stop the migrants from reaching the Mediterranean on their way to Europe. However, like the problems that arose in outsourcing border control to the weak Libyan central government along with the various militias scattered across the country, the number of human rights abuses in Morocco has significantly risen, according to human right experts (Sunderland, 2017). How have incentives played an important role in building cooperation between Morocco, Spain, and the European Union over migration?

Incentives and Cooperation Between the EU and Morocco

What does EU–Moroccan cooperation look like? The EU is Morocco’s strongest partner in terms of technical and financial support on migration, since their Mobility Partnership Agreement was agreed upon in 2013. Over the years, incentive has been a fundamental part of the relationship between the EU with its southern neighbor Morocco. This partnership has deepened since the 2010s. The development aid program offered by the EU includes a comprehensive cooperation package to support reform and inclusive development in Morocco. The EU aid priorities include equitable access to basic services; support for democratic governance, the rule of law, and mobility; civil society capacity development; and employment and sustainable and inclusive growth (European Commission, 2018). Overall, across all types of economic assistance, according to the European Commission, the EU has allocated approximately €1.5 billion in economic assistance to Morocco in the last half of the 2010s (European Commission, 2019, December 20). The EU has been the largest donor of European actors toward Morocco. As seen in Figure 3, while EU aid to Morocco has gone up, aid from other key donors—like France and Germany—has decreased significantly since 2017. This could suggest increasing coordination between the EU and its member states.

Figure 3. Overall official development assistance (ODA) net from key donors to Morocco in constant 2019 USD millions.

Since 2000, the EU has provided Morocco with increasing amounts of aid. While Madrid has convinced Brussels to provide economic funding, the Spanish government (both on the right and on the left) have advocated for EU support for the Moroccan government in Rabat to become a closer partner as well as to help fight irregular migration. On that topic alone, as Dimitris Avramopoulos, former EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship, pointed out, “Morocco is under particular migratory pressure with flows along the Western Mediterranean increasing. This is why we are intensifying and deepening our partnership with Morocco and increasing our financial support. This funding will help to strengthen border management and the fight against smugglers together but also to improve the protection of migrants and to help prevent irregular departures by supporting economic development in the region. Shared challenges require joint solutions and partnerships, and the EU stands by Morocco” (European Commission, 2018).

In 2019, the EU provided €148 million to Morocco on migration alone. This was out of almost a half a billion Euro overall provided by the EU that same year. The aid package, targeting migration in particular, included €70 million to help Morocco develop its border management system, €70 million to fight against migrant smuggling and human trafficking, and €8 million to strengthen migration governance policies at the regional level (European Commission, 2018). The EU migration aid package is intended to help Morocco modernize its border force by implementing new technologies and exchanging information and best practices with EU agencies such as Europol and Frontex (European Commission, 2019, December 20). In 2020, the EU committed to provide €389 million as part of a comprehensive economic support package for Morocco (European Commission, 2019, December 20).

However, as Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, indicated during a 2019 visit to Rabat, EU foreign aid should not be considered a gift as Europe expects help from Morocco in curbing irregular migration (Eljechtimi, 2019). In a somewhat more subtle, yet clear manner, the recent European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, indicated that, “Morocco plays a crucial role as a partner of the European Union. Together, we will contribute to the sustainable and inclusive growth of Morocco, we will fight smuggler networks which endanger the lives of vulnerable people, and we will improve the protection of migrant victims from these criminal networks. Morocco can count on the EU . . .” (Kuner, 2019). Spain has been an important partner within the EU, advocating for increased aid to Morocco and a deepening of the relationship between Europe and the North African kingdom.

Incentives and Cooperation Between Spain and Morocco

According to OECD aid data, Spain provides an extremely limited amount of aid to Morocco when compared to the more significant amounts given by the EU itself. However, the government in Madrid has been a strong advocate for Rabat, pressing Brussels to provide an aid package that includes a variety of types of assistance (Martin & Varo, 2019). The Spanish government also continues its effort to build a positive relationship and increase its contacts with Rabat. During his first visit to Morocco in November 2018, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez stated that “migration is a shared responsibility and we must reinforce our cooperation,” following talks with Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani (The Local, 2018).

Accordingly, Spain has increasingly worked with Morocco, as a transit and a country of origin, to develop an array of international agreements as part of Madrid’s comprehensive migration policy. Cooperation between Morocco and Spain can be seen as an example of an important north–south relationship. Spain has moved to develop a close bilateral link with Morocco on migration, along with a number of other issue areas. Cooperation between the governments in Madrid and Rabat encompasses trade ties, development cooperation, and has a direct impact on ties created by the growing and increasingly important Moroccan community in Spain. Concerning this last point, Spain continues to allow a certain amount of legal circular migration with the two countries’ citizens. This gives some Moroccans the right to work legally in Spain, although limited to particular economic sectors and under somewhat strict conditions.

Furthermore, Morocco has been on the frontlines in assisting Spain and the EU to regulate the arrival of irregular migrants into Europe for the past several years. That said, in November 2019, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pointed out that Morocco “must be endowed with sufficient resources to deal with illegal immigration” (Handaji, 2020). Accordingly, the various recent governments in Madrid have pressed the EU to provide significant incentives, in terms of monetary aid and other efforts to increase legitimacy to Morocco in order to get the North African country to increase its control of irregular migration and restrict the movement of refugees into Spanish territory. Significant increases in migration have caused Morocco and Spain to enhance their cooperation around the issue and intensify their relationship. So much so that some Spanish officials have indicated that their cooperation with Morocco was behind the drop in arrivals along the western Mediterranean route since 2019 (Brito, 2019).

Spain also provides aid to Morocco and tries to defend Moroccan interests within the EU, in return for Rabat being a strategic partner on countering illegal migration networks and curbing irregular EU-bound migration, along with other important issues such as organized crime, human smuggling, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Madrid has also increasingly tried to convince Brussels, along with the other EU member states, to increasingly “Europeanize” the issue of migration and secure assistance for Morocco (Ferreira, 2018). Spain additionally presses the other EU member states, such as France, to admit that a large plurality of irregular migrants that arrive in Spain after having come from Morocco continue on to other European countries. So Spain has been a staunch proponent of strengthening European external foreign policy by encouraging cooperation with origin and transit countries, especially concerning their southern neighbor Morocco (Fine & Torreblanca, 2019). Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has acknowledged that Spain acts as an advocate for Moroccan interests in the EU, calling their interrelations as being “fair and fundamental to maintain security and coexistence in the Mediterranean Sea” (Brito, 2019). These efforts have been going on for more than a decade and half since Spain helped initiate the European Union’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (European Commission, 2019, October 16). Originated in 2005, this plan puts managing migration with countries like Morocco on a par with other foreign policy priorities and development cooperation.

Nonetheless, the increasing levels of cooperation since the 2000s with Rabat has led Spain (and the EU) into controversy when it comes to human rights and international law, as with Libya, although Morocco is a much stronger state (Teevan, 2018). Transnational civil society organizations, like Amnesty International, have raised concern that Morocco has been taking increasingly repressive measures to stop people from reaching Spain (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2019). For example, Moroccan authorities transported hundreds of migrants from the north of the country to the south in very poor conditions, actions that were framed by Rabat in terms of moving these people away from the Mediterranean and Europe (Alami, 2018). It is important to note that Rabat accepted to increase policing its borders in return for a significant amount of technical and financial assistance from the EU and Spain. This is part of their incentives package. In return, however, the Moroccan government realizes that they have some leverage over Spain and the EU as well. Clearly, Rabat has room to maneuver and asks for its own concessions (Africa Confidential, 2018). However, how much power does Morocco have over its European partners? What is the government in Rabat asking for?

The Dialectics of Incentives: Cooperation and Concessions

Morocco has been more than eager to show itself as a reliable partner with Europe in restricting irregular migration from leaving its territory and moving on toward the EU.

However, one must not forget that Rabat is not without agency in its relationship with Europe. Morocco’s dependency and leverage creates an interesting dialectic in the ways incentives and expectations are framed and the overall relation between Morocco and its European neighbors. Clearly, Morocco is keen on extracting as many concessions as possible from its surprisingly advantageous position with Europe (Hattem, 2018). Similar kinds of agency have been noted in the relation between the African Union (AU) and Western powers on security issues (Bah, 2017b). The leadership in Rabat uses the topic of migration with Europe to pursue a broad spectrum of its own interests. Morocco rightfully perceives the magnitude of importance of immigration in European politics. What else does Rabat expect in return? Economic aid is only part of the bargain. Other technical, diplomatic, and legitimacy incentives range from capacity building of their security apparatus at the national level and with local administrations to trying to establish Morocco as a central multilateral player in North Africa and the African Union;3 intensifying its “soft power” globally; less pressure over human rights violations (especially with deportees); expanding its control of key fishing areas off its shores (as well as the restrictions of ships from other countries from fishing in Moroccan waters); while perhaps most importantly for Rabat it wants to normalize its sovereignty over Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic by separatists (Koch et al., 2018). If the deal on immigration falls apart and Rabat’s demands are not met, Rabat has threated its European partners about backing off from its cooperation on migration and security matters (Hattem, 2018).

Rabat views its cooperation with Spain and the EU in terms of national self-interest and a desire to stop illicit smuggling networks from getting a stronger foothold and increasing their activities on Moroccan territory, something that is seen as eroding the country’s sovereignty and elite control of the national economy. Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita, stated in a recent interview that Morocco is not prepared to become a platform for illegal actions, and that the situation in northern Morocco had become unacceptable due to the increasing implantation of criminal smuggling networks, primarily of people, but also illegal narcotics (Teevan, 2018). However, some in Morocco feel that the actions and policies of the EU and its member states like Spain have placed an increased amount of pressure on the country. The EU, they would say, has effectively closed down the illicit transit networks moving irregular migrants and refugees through Libya and other African states, displacing these people smuggling routes toward Morocco (Abderrahim , 2019). Yet, how much agency does Morocco have in its relationship with its partners across the Mediterranean?

The Moroccan government realizes that it is not alone in the complex dance around the question of irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Rabat is clearly aware that the EU has previously entered into complex negotiations, frequently under significant pressure to find a quick deal, with other countries in the region that were acting as key transit points for relatively significant irregular migration flows. These countries received significant amounts of aid to facilitate their cooperation. For example, both Turkey (in 2016) and Libya (in 2017) signed cooperation agreements with the EU, in which they were expected to help stem outward migration; and they did help reduce flows into Europe. In the two cases, the government in Ankara and the warring factions controlling various sections of Libya used the threat of unrestrained migration into Europe as a bargaining tool to get the EU and its member states to provide significant amounts of foreign aid. The Moroccan government also made tacit threats about looking the other way on northbound migration to Europe if certain conditions were not met. The reaction of the EU, and in this instance Spain as well, was to offer Rabat diplomatic support and financial incentives to control migration. Within the EU, Madrid continues to highlight “Morocco’s crucial importance as a strategic partner for migration and other issues,” according to a 2019 statement by Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska (Boutreux, 2019). Morocco uses its somewhat privileged position in its relationship with Spain and the EU over migration issues. Rabat’s leverage vis-à-vis Madrid and Brussels lies in the fact that Europe needs Morocco. Europeans need the North African country to cooperate and help them reduce the flow of irregular migration north across the Mediterranean. The EU and Spain provide foreign aid to Morocco as an incentive to facilitate this.

Nonetheless, it is important to indicate that Rabat has critical agency in this relationship. The “migration card” clearly exists for Morocco. It is not simply a passive actor. Rabat undoubtedly uses this situation to its advantage, at least as much as it can. Simply put, if the Moroccan government does not wish to continue cooperating with Spain and the EU on trying to stem irregular migration along the western Mediterranean corridor, this can cause serious problems for its European partners. Rabat could simply turn a blind eye on migrants moving from its territory across the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar into southwestern Europe. This represents a potential type of reverse pressure that Morocco can put on Spain and the EU in order to get them to supply increasing sums of aid and diplomatic concessions. The more the amount of pressure that Rabat is able to put upon Europe on the matter of irregular migration and refugees, the larger the amount of economic support and diplomatic favors that Morocco is able to get out of the EU and its member states. It appears that Morocco realizes that playing the “migration card” is an effective tool that can be used to put pressure on Spain and the EU. This is the reverse side of incentives.

Conclusion: Security and Incentives in the Mass Migration Dilemma

It is important for scholarly research to try to bridge the gap between the myopic perspective of daily media reports with the broad sweeps and generalizations of available academic research on the topic of migration between Africa and Europe. Too often, migration is a touchy issue that brings a lot of vulnerabilities for migrants and countries. These vulnerabilities tie into various forms of security issues that show up in the popular press, policy discourses, and scholarly works. The dynamics of irregular migration reduction along the Spanish–Moroccan (both land and sea) border zones, focusing on the western Mediterranean corridor, provides a critical case study on this crucial topic. It appears that the increasingly close cooperation between Spain (as well as the EU) and Morocco has been able to bring down irregular migration from the North African country toward western Europe via Spain, although this has come at some cost in terms of human rights. Understanding the role of an incentives approach is fundamental in understanding the core relationship between these three actors (i.e., Morocco, Spain, and the EU) and the nature of contemporary north–south relations. Incentives are not simply transactions. They present a variety of important policy tools available to facilitate cooperation on such contentious issues as migration. Two questions need to be raised. The first relates to the security issue of mass migration, and second examining the forms and nature of international collaborations to control mass migration from Africa to Europe. In answering these questions, we need to advance the conceptualization of security and the critique of north–south relations, especially in relation to migration issues.

Three forms of security concerns are central to understanding the flow of mass migration from Africa to Europe, namely: human security, cultural security, and state security. In examining the flow of irregular migration across the western Mediterranean route from Morocco to Spain, the issue of human security constantly shows up. While most of the media reports center on the legal and law enforcement issues in the management of the flow of refugees, the human security perspective goes deeper into the causes that led to mass migration in the first place, including lack of economic opportunities, poverty, underdevelopment, and poor governance. The management of mass migration needs to address human security issues in the sending and transit countries. The article also addresses the issue of cultural security, which is often avoided or masked in political correctness. However, a critical look into European political and social discourses and the extant anti-immigration policies shows deep fears of cultural outsiders, especially poor immigrants from majority Muslim countries. Some would argue that the issue of preserving the European way of life is directly challenged by mass irregular migration. Yet, this does not necessarily need to be the case. Cultural security becomes a lens through which we can understand some of the notorious anti-immigration policies of European countries and the price Europe is ready to pay in order to keep refugees outside of its borders. Finally, it is crucial to address the issue of state security for the host and transit countries. Through such an optic, state security is not so much in the sense of mass violence or state collapse. Rather, state security is viewed through the vulnerabilities of countries to terrorism and organized criminal networks, which often exploit the chaos resulting from uncontrolled mass irregular migration.

An incentive approach presents an intriguing critique of north–south relations and an alternative to business as usual. Europe and the countries south of the Mediterranean are locked in a mutual dependency relationship, which they each try to exploit in order to achieve their particular interests. In the case of Spain (along with the EU), Morocco is an indispensable collaborator in stemming mass migration north across the Mediterranean. In a similar way, Morocco is economically dependent on Europe. While traditional notions of international relations tend to look at the way countries exert pressure to gain advantage, it is important to recognize an interesting twist in that all the actors understand their mutual dependency and willingness to take a more collaborative, albeit interest-driven, approach to migration. By taking an incentive approach, Europe and Morocco start to develop a relation that is mutually beneficial but also gives them room to exert pressure. This brings in questions of agency, and more importantly the ethical dilemmas in the management of humanitarian problems rooted in human security. Clearly, no country wants to be seen in the media blatantly violating international norms by arresting refugees or letting them drown at sea. Yet, neither European countries nor Morocco wants to be host to such a huge, seemingly uncontrollable wave of irregular migrants. Europe knows that the migrants are heading to their lands, while Morocco is aware that the migrants for the most part do not want to permanently stay in Morocco. This reality creates an interesting mutual dependency wherein Morocco can do the morally difficult task of preventing vulnerable migrants from reaching Europe, which will save Europe the embarrassment of rejecting and violating the rights of refugees. By creating the right kinds of incentives for Morocco to help Europe protect itself from cultural outsiders, Europe has committed to pay Morocco through generous aid packages and strong diplomatic and legitimacy support to Morocco as it deals with difficult political and human rights issues. This arrangement works for the Moroccan elite who can count on Europe to help them with difficult political and economic issues at home and abroad. Overall, the notion of incentives sheds new light into the agency of southern countries in their dealings with Western powers, as well as the options available to the Global North to accomplish its policy objectives.


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  • 1. The research for this article is supported by funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement #725194, CRIMTANG). The authors would particularly like to thank the faculty and staff of the Centre for Global Criminology, a part of the University of Copenhagen.

  • 2. This article uses the term “irregular migration” to designate all categories of international migrants in an irregular situation, including the undocumented. That said, this article, in using the term “irregular migration,” refers to the movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the country of origin, transit, or destination.

  • 3. Morocco became a member of the AU in January 2017, after having left the Organization of African Unity in 1984.