‘Losing Leverage’ in the Neighbourhood: A Cognitive Frame Analysis of the European Union Migration Policy

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(3) 302 –323 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817211030643
Research article
‘Losing Leverage’ in
the Neighbourhood:
A Cognitive Frame
Analysis of the European
Union Migration Policy
Jyri J. Jäntti1 and Benjamin Klasche1
The European Union (EU)–Turkey deal consolidated a shift in the EU’s migration
policy. The deal is the culmination of the dominance of the security frame and depicts
the continuous externalization of the EU’s responsibility of asylum protection
and burden sharing. The strengthening of the security frame has weakened the
humanitarian norms that previously dictated EU’s behaviour. This has led to the
EU losing some of its comparative advantages in negotiations. Simultaneously,
the instrumentalization of the value of asylum, paired with an increased number
of asylum seekers, has given negotiation leverage to the neighbouring countries
turned service providers. These changes in perception and norms have created
a power shift, at the disadvantage of the EU, creating a more leveled playing field
for negotiations between the parties. This article tracks the historical shifts in
the global refugee regime to explain how today’s situation was created. Hereby,
the existence of two competing cognitive frames—humanitarian and security—is
assumed, tracked and analysed. While looking at the EU–Turkey deal, the article
shows that the EU has started treating refugees as a security problem rather than
a humanitarian issue, breaking the normative fabric of the refugee regime in the
process. The article also displays how Turkey was able to capitalise on this new
reality and engage with negotiations of other neighbouring countries of EU that
point towards a change of dynamics in the global refugee regime.
EU-Turkey deal, cognitive frames, migration policy, foreign policy, international
1 School of Governance, Law and Society, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia.
Corresponding author:
Jyri J. Jantti, Sotkatie 9 a 5, 00200 Helsinki, Finland.
E-mail: jantti.jyri@gmail.com
Jäntti and Klasche 303
On 20 March 2016, the European Union (EU) and its neighbour Turkey entered
into an agreement that formally intended to limit the influx of irregular migrants
entering the Union through Turkey’s territory. The agreement—known as the EU–
Turkey deal—essentially allows the EU to send back irregular migrants who
arrive in Greece via Turkey. In returns, the EU agreed to allocate a total of €6
billion in aid to help Turkey handle their responsibility to host refugees.1 In other
words, the EU outsources the responsibility to provide asylum to Turkey in
exchange for political compromises and monetary support. A deal of this kind is
only possible in a world where the humanitarian responsibility deriving from the
global refugee regime moves to the decision-making background. The regime was
based on two humanitarian responsibilities: the refugee’s right to asylum and the
idea of global solidarity or burden sharing between signatories. States have tried
to avoid the burden created by refugees since the creation of the regime, but this
intensified with the end of the Cold War which saw the emergence of a new
security landscape. The new landscape included non-military threats to individuals
and societies, enabling perceiving irregular migration as a potential economic,
identity-based, cultural and political threat. In this article, security is understood
through the non-traditional security lens of the Copenhagen School (Buzan et al.,
1998), which includes non-military threats (see Paris, 2001; Tadjbakhsh, 2013),
with a specific weight on the definition of human security put forward by the
United Nations Human Development Report 1994 (UNDP, 1994).
The spike of incoming refugees to Europe in 2015 led to a disintegrated
response from the member states and EU’s previously strongly humanitarian
approach to fulfilling their responsibilities was suspended. The EU–Turkey deal
must be viewed as a continuation of the persisting development in the refugee
regime, according to which, refugees are seen as a security threat and not as a
humanitarian responsibility. It further externalises the responsibility to protect
asylum seekers to EU’s neighbourhood countries and commoditizes the burden
sharing concept. The outsourcing of responsibility creates a new dynamic between
EU and neighbouring countries and possibly between the North and the South2 at
large. The third countries in the South continue to carry the most substantial part
of the burden (Gibney, 2007, 2014; Miller, 2007; Owen, 2012) but are now in a
position to gain political capital.
We propose that the new situation created by EU’s focus on security can be
understood by analysing cognitive frames in the refugee regime. These explain
how actors perceive reality and how actions are based on these realities. An
analysis of these frames to study human behaviour has been brought forward by
Sociologist Goffman (1974) in the 1970s. By relying on his approach and several
interpretations of others, it was most recently introduced as a viable methodological
approach for the study of International Relations (IR) (Klasche & Selg, 2020).
Cognitive frames are modes of interpretation that are socially constructed—an
intersubjective pattern of defining and interpreting reality collectively’ (Hughey,
2015, p. 140). Based on this, all interactions are guided by experience-laden
cognitive frames, and behaviour can change when other frames obtain the

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