Brussels is proposing to levy punitive trade tariffs on countries that do not accept the return of citizens who have illegally entered Europe, as the bloc steps up efforts to toughen its migration policy.

The move by the European Commission follows an increase in anti-immigrant feeling in many EU countries, which has led to rising support for populist politicians.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron faces a tough re-election battle against the far-right Marine Le Pen in this month’s elections, while immigration hardliner Viktor Orban won a crushing poll victory in Hungary at the weekend.

The EU grants tariff free access to imports from almost 70 developing countries to boost their economies. But in a review of the scheme, first tabled in September, the Commission has asked for the power to revoke this privilege, known as the General System of Preferences (GSP), from countries that refuse to accept citizens deported by the EU.

Brussels claims it needs to act because the “brain drain” of migrants to the EU damages their home countries but it would only do so after careful assessment. But some members of the European parliament condemned the proposal which will hit developing countries’ economies by making their exports more expensive.

Speaking to the Financial Times on Tuesday, the Commission said: “Orderly international migration can bring important benefits to the countries of origin and destination of migrants and contribute to their sustainable development needs. Increasing coherence between trade, development and migration policies is key to ensure that the benefits of migration accrue mutually to both the origin and destination countries.”

Heidi Hautala, the MEP in charge of steering the legislation through the parliament, said that the commission should remove the migration link from the proposal, which has to be agreed by all 27 member states.

“It is toxic,” she said. “It detracts from the GSP which is supposed to eliminate poverty and promote sustainable development for 2bn people on this earth.”

Trade should not be a weapon in combating migration, she added.

The Finnish Green party MEP said parliament’s trade committee would vote on April 25 on amendments that emphasised co-operation in managing migration.

Of the 396,000 immigrants told to leave Europe in 2020, just 70,000 returned to their home countries, although the process was hindered by Covid lockdowns. Even in 2019, before the pandemic, only 29 per cent of illegal immigrants told to leave the EU returned home.

Mali, Senegal and Guinea were among countries with the lowest return rates and are therefore most likely to lose trade privileges if the European parliament and member states approve the Commission plan. The proposed tariffs include 12 per cent on cotton shirts and 24 per cent on tinned tuna.

GSP beneficiaries must agree to abide by certain international treaties on labour rights and human rights or risk losing the status. Almost 50 of the poorest countries benefit from the Everything But Arms scheme, which exempts all goods except weapons and ammunition.

Another 19 low and lower-middle income countries are granted a partial or full removal of customs duties on two-thirds of tariff lines.

The EU is removing some goods from Cambodia from GSP because of human rights abuses.

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