How do international institutions affect the ‘behaviour’ and interests of nation states in the area of migration?


How do international institutions affect the ‘behaviour’ and interests of nation states in the area of migration?

Estimated at 214 million, migrants represent 3.1% of the world population. International migration is therefore an aspect of globalisation that has political challenges. Global phenomenon given the acceleration of migratory movements, the ‘migration problem’ has called for cooperation between states which often takes place within either regional (European Union) or/and international (International Organisation for Migration) structures. Furthermore, these institutions affect the ‘behaviour’ of nation states. By ‘behaviour’ I mean the interests, the identity and the values of the nation state which are redefined. With this understanding in mind, I will briefly consider the stratification of the current global governance and its impact on the sovereignty of nation-states in the policy-area of migration. Drawing mainly on the institutionalist, creativist and realist theories, the next two sections will examine the ‘hard governance’ of the supranational EU and the ‘light governance’ of international institutions (IOM) on the nation-state. 

In the process of globalisation, which represents the various flows (economic, migratory, technological) that nation-states witness, global governance refers to an embedding of various structures at local (communities), domestic (NGOs, corporations) and international level (organisations). If in the past the state was at the centre of the decision-making, at present it is an actor of the above-mentioned system. It shares its political, economic and social power with various structures (Pierre and Peters, 2000:79-80). 

The balance of powers has therefore changed from government, a very state-centred perspective, to a “multilayered, multidimensional and multi-actor” governance (Held, 2004:79). It is multilayered given the access to political coordination of various suprastate, transnational, national and substate bodies. The migration policy is governed at a domestic level by both Ministries (Foreign Affairs, Social Affairs, Justice, Economic, Interior) and by various international/regional organisations (e.g: United Nations, EU) at a global level. This translates its politicisation, not its value as a human right. Its multidimensional aspect refers to the varied functions these agencies can offer. According to the type of migration we refer to (illegal migration, labour migration, asylum seekers and refugees), it will be dealt with by different institutions. The multi-actor dimension draws on the existance of many agencies that take action in the development of global public policy of migration, even if not all of them have an equal power. Indeed, as we will see in the next two sections, the IOM and the EU affect differently the sovereignty of the nation-state. This varies, as Archibugi (2004:50) points it, according to the ‘governance arrangements’ which represent the interactions between different actors that have shared goals. These arrangements refer to the relation between the “demand” and the “supply” of global governance, the “demand” side being represented by the state. In other words, the state should dictate the nature of governance. 

In a nutschell, globalisation and the network of political actors have changed the power of the state over its decision-making, its sovereignty and autonomy being reduced. However, even if globalisation has affected domestic politics, there is a need for deeper and wider cooperation and coordination (Woods, 2004:26). Pierre and Peters (2000:83-87) describe this phenomenon as a “moving up” towards international organisations (IOs) which have taken over policy-making areas. In the case of migration-policy, there is evident need for the presence of IOs because it requests cooperation between states. IOs can also tackle various policy-areas that governments do not represent or fail to deliver assisstance and services to (Woods, 2004:27). 

The power of international institutions is a much discussed issue which takes the form of three main schools of thought: institutionalism, creativsm and neo- realism. 

The institutionalist theory argues that states choose to be part of IOs because of the benefits gained from cooperation with other states. Indeed, they may provide their constituencies with various sorts of services that the state on its own is unable to provide. Goods like communications and various technologies are incentives for states to cooperate with eachother. In this way, IOs serve as a “lifeboats for national political elites” (Shanks et al.,1996:618), devoting to tasks likely to serve nation states. 

Nontheless, drawing on the institutionalist theory, I argue that it is in states’ interest to be part of such an international framework given the centralisation and independence this would enhance. These two factors represent a form of transaction cost effectiveness. Centralization can also shape the political context of nation-states through forums and various supportive functions as technical assistance and training. Also, many IOs are valuable “pooling vehicles” (Abbott and Snidal, 1998:13) which can improve the process of decision-making. The second notion that undermines the theory of institutionalism is independence and it is based on the assumption that the neutrality of IOs can transform relations among states 

Even if free rider and cheating problems are likely to occur, they can be more easily countered within such a structure because of various rules and its role as an arbiter (ibid:22). 

According to institutionalists, once established, the IO becomes autonomous from nation-states (Roumpakis, 2009:4). In that case, the nation state is losing control over its policy-making. This refers to the At the European level, this is expressed by the diminishing power the states have in order to control the migratory flows of third country nationals. Indeed, the EU has evolved in only 50 years from an intergovernmental to a supranational institution (Zweifel, 2006:131). This represents the ‘hard governance’ of the EU in the sense that it not only produces directions, but it establishes them by authority undermining the power of nation-states. 

In that respect, EU external governance represents “the shift outwards” (Lavenex, 2006:1) of migration policy. It refers to the third countries and it can be interpreted as a way of the supranational institution to control various policy areas (Lavenex, 2004:4-6). In doing so, the inclusiveness refered to by Archibugi (2004:52) is very low. Indeed, the power of decision is not shared by all the actors affected by the resulting policies, but rather by one hegemonic actor in the way that governance is only the product of the EU (ibid). 

The external EU governance, represented by the asylum and immigration policy has at its core the principle of “safe third country”. These are the states that are deemed to be “safe”. This rule has deepened and enlarged the power of the EU by the control over the external borders.  Established by the Dublin Convention (1990), adopted under the 3rd pillar of the Maastricht Treaty and reaffirmed by the Amsterdam Treaty (1998), this principle concentrates on the transfer of national asylum procedures to the member states by limitating their access. The “safe third country” principle is based on the idea that the only country which has to deal with the asylum claims is the first country the asylum-seeker enters unless the claimant has links with another state (Lavenex, 1998:129). This principle is a way for the EU to reduce migration into its territory. Indeed, by labelling various states as “safe”, it prevents access to asylum seekers to the European territory. This policy affects the ‘behaviour’ of third countries domestic policies which have to adapt the asylum and migration policies to the EU package of rules. Also, it affects the ‘behaviour’ EU member-states in the way that they do not have the power to control the policy-area of external migration. Lavenex (1998:134) described the policy as being a way of “passing the buck” of asylum seekers and refugee protection further away. 

External governance is an example that has promoted supranational governance through European integration while undermining the power of nation-states which have lost control over their domestic external migration policy. Here, the “demand and “supply” theory of governance of Archibugi (2004:46) is not relevant. Nevertheless, this strategy can be also seen in terms of “escape to Europe” (Geddes 2008:127), which allows member-states to avoid national political limitations in order to attain their objectives. In this perspective, the state shapes the nature of governance that will be next “supplied” to him. It can also explain the rise of right-wing parties (e.g: Republicans in Germany, the British National Party, the Swiss Democrats, the Center Democrats in the Netherlands, or the Front National in France) as a “political backlash” (Banting, 2000:21-23) against immigrants. 

In that respect, the notion of “international socialization” (Bearce and Bondanella, 2007:706) is more pertinent, as it shapes the interests of states. It refers to the “process by which actors acquire different identities, leading to new interests through regular and sustained interactions within broader social contexts and structures” (ibid.). This is achieved by undergoing a change in actors’ behaviour (not in their interests), or a change in their identity by the creation of a new social identity. Wendt (1994:385) underlines the main ideas of the constructivist approach. He argues that states are the principal entities of analysis for the International political theory. State sovereignty is therefore not undermined by the governance of international institutions, as they are the main actors. Secondly, he argues that domestic identities and interests are mainly constructed by social structures. IOs shape ideas and understandings of nation-states in time and promote interests convergence (Bearace and Bondanella, 2007:708). Nevertheless, this theory does not take into account the notion of cooperation and therefore the possibility of one powerful state-leader to shape the ideas of other nation-states or to withdraw from the actual cooperation. An example is the United Kingdom, which opted out from the Justice and Home Affairs pillar. Indeed, IOs are not always the promotors of ‘change’. According to this theory, those actors able to shape ideas are powerful, and at international level are mainly represented by “epistemic communities”. They can influence state interests by identifying the aspects of a policy. By so doing, national decision-makers may consider to take a new path in order to attain new objectives (Haas, 1992:4-5). The EU can therefore shape the ‘behaviour’ of its member-states either in an institutionalist or in a creativist way. 

The realist theory presents the IOs as reflecting national interests and the balance of power (Mearsheimer, 1994:7). Thus, IOs do not affect the nation-states, who remain at the core of political and economic power and the main geographical entity for decisions to take place; they have no authority above them (Reinicke, 1998:58). On the contrary, national politics dominate IO politics. The outcomes, therefore, are a reflection of the interests and power of the member states (Talani, 2004:31).The struggle for power takes the form here of anarchy in that the states compete, take advantage and cheat the other states (Mearsheimer, 1994:9). This could be interpreted as the ‘survival of the fittest’. Neorealists argue that the only reason for cooperation to take place is related to relative gains, that is the value of indivual gains compared to the others’ gains (Reinicke, 1998:61). 

The state is the “undisputed locus of power” (Pierre and Peters, 2000:81) and its power is absolute. In that respect, it is made up of various institutions used to strengthen the political will of the predominant electorate. In this framework with the sovereign state at its centre, IOs are powerless. Even if realists acknowledge that states sometimes do act through institutions, the latter only provide a locus for the struggle of power to take place. Moreover, the most powerful states can shape the institutions and therefore increase their power (Mearsheimer, 1994:13). 

An example of such an organisation which can be seen as an “arena” and has not major impact on its member-states is the IOM. It is an example of ‘light governance’ because, unlike the EU, it can only support and assist countries, but cannot produce law. Operational body part of the United Nations System, it does not have the power to bring important change and therefore does not significantly shape the ‘behaviour’ of its member states. Given its position as an ‘emanation’ (Shanks et al. 1996:600) emerged from a decision of the UN, it cannot have the same power on member-states as traditional structures (EU). Thus, the IOM yields to the power of the nation-state. Nevertheles, given its intergovernmental approach, decisions made within IOM reflect international staff and nongovernmental organisations that are involved in the programmes implemented. Indeed, global sub-organisation, it is open to all states. It makes no geographical or historical ‘discrimination’. At the time of writing it counts 127 member states and 17 observers (IOM, 2010). However, the observer status is a proof of the diminishing representation, thus participation, of states in IOs. Also, the presence of international governmental and non-governmental organisations can translate the representation of interests of various actors which would not necessarily be the same with the ones of nation-states.   

However, through the cheap flight tickets it provides various cases of migrants (e.g: voluntary returns) with, the IOM has had complaints from different organisations (e.g: Noborder). Noborder argues that the flight ticket creates a link with the German government. Thus, that goes beyond the implementation of the politics of the German state. It has actually created that set of politics by presenting and selling it to the state, which pays for it and wants the organisation to implement it. In this way, the role of the IOM is bigger than assisting and suporting states, but it actually shapes the policy-agenda. Moreover, following the identification of the EU of Turkey as an important transit state for migrants from Africa to Asia, the IOM recommended border control in Turkey in order to prevent irregular migration and combat traffiking. In so doing, during an illegal cross of borders, nine people were deadly shot and other injured (Noborder, 2000). That could be an IOM policy recommendation that had a negative outcome.  

These two examples counter the neorealist idea that institutions do not play a role in the shaping of the national ‘behaviour’. Indeed, even in the case of an intergovernmental institution, which at the basis does not have the power to bring enormous change, and where the level of inclusiveness is high, its programmes can have political spillovers over the domestic migration-policy. 

This paper has looked at the impact that international institutions have on nation states. I argued that even if the state is still the principal actor, it now shares its power mainly with international institutions, which is a “shift up”. In this perspective, its ‘behaviour’ is always shaped. Being part of IOs is in the interest of nation-states because an international organisation offers, in theory, both centralisation and independence. Also, the political arena IOs make available to states represents a means of cooperation. The institutionalist approach seems to be the most pertinant, which is based on cooperation, but which also argues that IOs, once established, become autonomous. However, I would argue that there is still a relation of interdependence between the two main actors. Indeed, IOs cannot exist without states, and states, at this point in time, would have difficulties in cooperating, especially in the field of migration, without a structure which would regroup them. Furthermore, it should be created a global institution in charge with migration policy which would monitor both migratory flows and migrants’ human rights. Migration creates the necessity of IOs. 

The question that remains is the role the nation state will have in the future. Indeed, if once established, IOs fight for autonomy, it implies that when autonomous, they will fight for dominance over nation states. This is best shown by the external governance of the EU and the principle of “safe third country”, which represents a form of ‘hard governance’. On the other hand, even the IOM (‘light governance’), which can only assist nation states, has the power to do significant change only through soft norm. In this perspective, nation-states could either face erosion, or they can adapt and change national and international policies 


ARCHIBUGI, M., 2004. Mapping Global Governance. In: HELD, D. and MCGREW, A, ed. Governing Globalization. Cambridge: Polity, pp.46-70 

ABBOTT, K. And SNIDAL, D., 1998. Why States Act through Formal International Organizations. Journal of Conflict Resolution 42(1):3-32 

GEDDES, A., 2008.The Politics of Migration and Immigration in Europe. London: SAGE 

HAAS, P., 1992. Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination. International Organization 46(1):1-35 

HELD, D., 2004; Global Covenant. The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus. Cambridge: Polity 

IOM. Available at . [Accessed on the 12th of January 2010] 

LAVENEX, S., 1998. ‘Passing the Buck’: European Union Refugee Policies towards Central and Eastern Europe. In: Journal of Refugee Studies Vol.11, No.2, pp. 126-145 

MEARSHEIMER, J., 1994. The False Promise of International Institutions. International Security 19(3):5-49 

NOBORDER. Available at . [Accessed on the 12th of January 2010] 

PIERRE, J. And PETERS, G., 2000. Governance, Politics and the State. London: Palgrave Macmillan 

REINICKE, W., 1998. Global Public Policy. Governing without Government?. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press 

ROUMPAKIS, A., 2009. Lecture: Mapping Global Institutions.University of Bath 

TALANI, S., 2004. European Political Economy. Hampshire: Ashgate 

WENDT, A., 1994. Collective Identity Formation and the International State. American Political Science Review 88(2):384-96 

WOODS, N., 2004. Global Governance and the Role of Institutions. In: HELD, D. and MCGREW, A, ed. Governing Globalization. Cambridge: Polity, pp.25-25-46 

ZWEIFEL, T., International Organizations & Democracy. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  •  On July 31, 2013 at 10:51 am

    My brother recommended I may like this blog. He was once entirely right.
    This publish actually made my day. You cann’t believe simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: