It's the latest in a raft of European efforts to ‘externalise’ migrant controls by outsourcing them to third countries.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni is trying to depict her new agreement with Middle Eastern and African countries as crucial to deal with irregular migration — experts are dubious.
The 'Rome Process' agreed on Sunday aims to tackle the root causes of illegal migration — including conflict, economic hardship and climate change — and crack down on migrant smugglers. The twenty countries that signed up will also partner on clean energy and to improve employment perspectives in emerging economies.
It came after the EU signed a €105 million deal with Tunisia to stem the flow of irregular Mediterranean crossings and boost returns.
But experts warn externalisation is not a silver bullet for the EU's migration woes.
"I don't see the Rome Process as a major step, but rather as yet another initiative to address migration into Europe," said Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
"Europe is trying to attract more cooperation to stem migration flows and return migrants from countries of origin and transit. In turn, they are trying to extract more money and political attention from Europe," he added.
One of many externalisation measures
The main objective of the new alliance is to tackle criminal networks that illegally smuggle migrants into Europe in dire conditions, contributing to a rising migrant death toll. Almost 2,000 people are estimated to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe this year.
“It is our duty of course to take care of our states, but it is also our duty to take care of the fate of these people,” Giorgia Meloni said Sunday.
Migrant smuggling has become a widespread and lucrative criminal activity, with a recent surge seen in illegal groups operating in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, gateways into Europe via the Mediterranean route.
The conclusions of Sunday’s conference foresee new bilateral or multilateral agreements between countries to combat migrant smuggling, including transnational coordination to prosecute smugglers and new measures to track and freeze their illegal profits.
Opening safe, legal migration routes
But although irregular migration is a problem for the EU, the bloc faces another, more pervasive problem, for which migration provides a solution: labour shortages due to its ageing and declining populations.
The Rome Process aims to address that by fostering legal and safe pathways for migration.
"Meloni has changed tone on legal migration, aware of labour shortages in Italy. But she has not changed tone on illegal migration," Scazzieri said.
"She is attempting to make a distinction between legal and illegal migration, hoping that her supporters will see the difference," he added.
"I think her shift also reflects a recognition that she needs to offer third countries some legal migration routes if she wants them to co-operate more in terms of reducing illegal migration flows."
Tunisia deal a blueprint
The EU is hoping its new memorandum of understanding with Tunisia to stem illegal migration into Europe can be used as a template for future bilateral partnerships, as Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen reiterated on Sunday.
Government representatives from Morocco and Egypt, countries rumoured to be next in line for a similar agreement, were present at the conference.
But this is stoking fears the EU is offloading its responsibilities to third countries through such deals.
"This agreement joins a plethora of agreements, initiatives and processes initiated in the EU to manage the external dimension of migration," according to Dr. Eleonora Milazzo, Joint Research Fellow at the Egmont Institute and the European Policy Center.
"This while the prospects of reaching an agreement on managing the internal dimension of responsibility sharing remain meagre."
The Tunisia agreement has received criticism from NGOs, humanitarian groups and EU lawmakers as an attempt to outsource migration control to African nations with a questionable human rights record. Tunisian President Kais Saied has previously made racist remarks towards sub-Saharan migrants, and there is mounting evidence Tunisia has been pushing back migrants into the desert on the border with Libya and Algeria, leaving them with no food or water.
"There is a substantial concern that cooperation processes like the one launched in Rome turn a blind eye on the poor human rights track record of many partner countries, leading to more deadly irregular journeys and not promoting safe pathways," Dr Milazzo said.
Details on how the new alliance will be funded have not yet been agreed upon, but members of leading financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund, the Islamic Development Bank and the World Bank were present at negotiations.
A donors’ conference will follow where member nations will agree on a common fund to finance projects. Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, has already committed $100 million (€90.2 million) to the process.
Italy is expected to unveil the ‘Mattei plan’ for cooperation with Africa in October, focused also on cooperation on energy and curbing migrant flows. When asked how the Rome Process fits in with the Mattei plan, Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani explained the need for a financing plan that extends to the EU, the Gulf countries, and perhaps Turkey and the USA. “Otherwise you don’t go far,” he explained.
During the conference, Tunisia’s President Saied called for the establishment of a new global financial institution to tackle the root causes of migration. Discussions on a potential bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Tunisia recently stalled as Saied refused to implement the reforms demanded by the IMF in return for the loan.
Climate change, in particular, is increasingly seen as a driver of forced displacement, the conclusions also highlight. Von der Leyen named clean energy as a priority area for investments with partner countries, with the EU’s Global Gateway initiative also making €300 billion available for infrastructure projects.
Participating countries also agreed to enhance cooperation with countries and people vulnerable to climate change, and ramp up investments in renewable energy and green, blue and circular economies.
An 'alliance of equals'
Meloni acknowledged on Sunday that Europe has not always been a thoughtful partner and that "distrust" has sometimes made it difficult to solve common problems. But she stressed the conference was "dialogue between equals, based on mutual respect."
“There cannot be a competitive or conflictual relationship between Europe and the wider Mediterranean because our interests are much more common than we might first think,” she said.
With the EU set to continue externalising its border controls to third countries, its partners “have an interest to extract greater benefits from the EU for their co-operation,” Scazzieri said. “So these relationships are inherently unstable and have to be regularly re-negotiated.”
For Meloni, this presents an opportunity.
"Meloni’s agenda appears to be about showing that Italy is actively seeking external allies and is proactive on the migration file. Team Europe and her visits to Tunisia have been prominent platforms to draw the EU’s attention on Italy’s role (and interests) in the Mediterranean," said Dr Milazzo.
Concerns are however mounting over the potential misuse of EU funds through those new kinds of deals.
In some North African countries such as Libya, for example, criminal groups have already infiltrated the national coastguard. Earlier this month, a Libyan coastguard fired at humanitarian boats conducting rescue operations from an EU-funded boat.
Tunisia will host the next high-level event for the alliance, with countries not currently represented also invited to express interest in joining the alliance.