International cooperation: does migration have a centrifugal or centripetal influence?

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Recent political developments might suggest that migration-related issues entail centrifugal tendencies for matters of international cooperation, in that they appear to involve fragmentation and disengagement from wider forms of cooperation. But, can migration also entail centripetal tendencies leading to greater international cooperation and integration? And how does the tension between these centripetal and centrifugal drives play out in affecting cross-country cooperation?1

Several events testify to countries’ growing tendency to withdraw from multilateral / supranational agreements, and at the same time to further restrict cross-border movements. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 followed a campaign with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ and featured promises to build a wall along the border with Mexico plus entry bans for refugees and people traveling from Muslim countries. The US also withdrew from international agreements, including the Global Compact on Migration or the Global Compact on Refugees. The United Kingdom voted in 2016 in favour of leaving the European Union to ‘take back control’, particularly over national borders and migration inflows. No less telling, the sudden and large flows of asylum seekers reaching Europe in 2015 prompted several EU countries to close their borders or re-instate border controls within the Schengen area of free movement.

Both trade and migration constitute core aspects of globalization. However, while states are typically invested in cooperation on trade, a comparable multilateral regime on migration is still largely absent (see Goodman and Schimmelfenig 2020). One important reason is that immigration brings to center stage notions of national sovereignty and identity politics. Accordingly, domestic politicization of migration can represent a significant impediment against more far-reaching international cooperation on this issue. Such politicization contributed to the emergence within national politics of a transnational cleavage that pits supporters of open borders and transnational exchanges of goods and people against those supporting economic and cultural protectionism (Hooghe and Marks 2018). The concerns of the latter are often mobilised by radical right anti-immigrant political actors – like the Austrian Freedom Party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), or the Italian Lega party, to name just a few – which have become a constant feature of European party systems, impacting political debates around these issues.

At the same time, migration is by its very nature a cross-border phenomenon. Hence, from a policy perspective, managing migration and refugee inflows could also necessitate greater cross-country cooperation , in particular between destination countries and countries of transit and/or host countries. The deal agreed between the European Union and Turkey in 2016 is a case in point. Adopted in response to the rapid increase in migrant and refugee arrivals on European soil in 2015-2016, some of its key provisions included the return of migrants crossing irregularly from Turkey to Greece and who do not qualify for refugee protection, EU financial aid for refugees in Turkey, the resettlement of a number of Syrian refugees (according to a 1:1 mechanism whereby for each Syrian migrant returned from Greece to Turkey, one Syrian refugee would be resettled to the EU from Turkey), and tougher controls at the Turkish-Greek borders. The adoption of the deal roughly coincided with a drastic reduction in sea and land arrivals to Greece, which – according to UNHCR data – declined from around 862.000 in 2015 to around 177.000 in 2016, roughly 36.000 in 2017 and around 50.000 in 2018.

While the divisive nature of immigration-related issues is undeniable in many Western democracies, gaining insights into how domestic publics view and react to such instances of cross-country cooperation is particularly relevant to grasp their potential to generate public support or opposition. More recent research goes in that direction. For instance, Solodoch (2019) suggests that the 2016 EU-Turkey deal reduced anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany and support for the anti-immigrant party AfD by enhancing political trust and perceptions of leadership and competence in handling the 2015 refugee crisis.

In a recent working paper I co-authored with colleagues from the European University Institute and the MEDAM project we explored public preferences for cross-country cooperation between the EU and Turkey on refugee protection and the management of irregular migration, employing a conjoint experiment embedded in original surveys in Greece, Germany and Turkey. In this study, we asked respondents to evaluate a series of hypothetical cooperation packages between the EU and Turkey, randomly varying the exact policy features included in the overall package. We found that German and Greek respondents tend to be supportive of several existing features of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, specifically on aspects linked to returns, border controls and EU financial assistance to refugees in Turkey. Turkish respondents also appear to display a certain degree of status-quo bias, though with respect to a more limited number of features of the agreement, namely EU financial aid and resettlement.

At the same time, we also find public support for measures that might be indicative of greater cooperation, in particular concerning refugee resettlement from Turkey to the EU. Respondents in all three countries displayed greater favorability toward resettling each year 1% of the population of Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey (which was equivalent to about 36.000 persons in 2020) than the current 1:1 mechanism. By way of comparison, around 8.500 people in need of international protection were resettled from non-EU to EU countries in 2020, the highest number coming from Turkey (European Commission 2021). This declared support for resettlement supplements previous findings that a majority of Europeans prefer a proportional allocation of asylum seekers within Europe (see Bansak et al. 2017).

Clearly, such type of cooperation is not without challenges. EU relations with Turkey have recently suffered renewed challenges linked, for instance, to tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or the opening of Turkish borders in 2020 for migrants to head to EU. Moreover, Turkey has experienced a pronounced decline in democratic indicators throughout the past decade (see V-DEM data and reports), which may raise questions in Europe about cooperating with Turkey. From this perspective, in the above-mentioned study (Vrânceanu et al. 2021), we find that Greek and German respondents support the channeling of financial assistance for refugees living in Turkey through international organizations and NGOs, as opposed to channeling through the Turkish government. The democratic credentials of the partners that the EU engages with might thus matter for (at least part of) European voters. At the same time, we do not find evidence of widespread opposition to engaging with Turkey on issues of migration management and refugee protection. On the contrary, voters seem to support certain forms of cooperation.

Going back to the opening question, does migration have centripetal or centrifugal influences on international cooperation? The answer might be: both. On the one hand, as mentioned before, immigration can be a highly divisive and contested issue in many advanced industrial democracies. The rise (and consolidation) of radical right populist parties in many European countries means that immigration might stay on the political agenda for the foreseeable future, potentially holding in check national governments’ actions to establish cooperative agreements in this area. On the other hand, countries may need to find ways to work together in order to address cross-border issues like climate-induced migration, refugee protection or economic migration, as the 2016-EU Turkey deal or the (non-binding) Global Compact on Migration attest. These issues are likely to persist as pressing challenges for governments over the long run. The tension underlying how much – and what types of – cooperation countries are willing to engage in might not change over the short-to-medium term.

1. In his seminal Parties and party systems. A framework for analysis, Sartori (1976) analyses centrifugal and centripetal drives in party systems and party competition.


Alina Vrânceanu, EUI, RSCAS, Migration Policy Centre (MPC)


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.