Countries in Africa and the Middle East should be offered a mix of positive and negative incentives to help curb migration flows to Europe, the European Commission proposed Tuesday.
The move comes as hundreds of people continue to undertake treacherous journeys towards Europe in search of protection or a better life.
After being overwhelmed by 1 million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015, the EU managed to disrupt a key migration route from Turkey to Greece by negotiating a contentious deal offering Ankara aid and other benefits in return for stemming migrant flows.
Italy - the main destination of migrants setting sail from Libya - had pushed for the EU to also offer African countries money to tighten border controls, emulating the deal with Turkey.
Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans on Tuesday said such deals could help to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea, return more migrants in Europe to their countries of origin and enable refugees to stay closer to home.
"We propose to use a mix of positive and negative incentives to reward those third countries willing to cooperate effectively with us and to ensure that there are consequences for those who do not," Timmermans told EU lawmakers in the French city of Strasbourg.
"This includes using our development and trade policies to create leverage," he added.
So-called migration compacts - covering areas such as development aid, trade, security and visa policy - should initially be negotiated with Jordan, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia, the commission proposed. Engagement with Tunisia and Libya should increase.
Eight billion euros (9.1 billion dollars) would be made available over the next five years, Timmermans said. Most of this would come from previous pledges, with the commission adding 500 million euros to an existing EU fund for Africa and encouraging member states to do the same.
Later this year, the commission plans to launch a 3.1-billion-euro fund to boost investments into developing third countries, with a view to leveraging up to 31 billion euros in public and private funding, modelled on a similar plan set up for Europe.
The fund could reach a firepower of 62 billion euros if member states match EU contributions, the commission noted.
The proposed fund would be a "revolution in our approach to development cooperation," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told the European Parliament.
EU lawmaker Manfred Weber of the European People's Party, the largest in parliament, welcomed the new approach. "If our partners in Africa are not cooperating on migrant returns then there should be consequences in the trade agreements," he said.
But the Oxfam advocacy group accused the commission of attempting to "bribe" poorer countries and of seeking deals with repressive regimes.
"By choosing to outsource to third countries Europe's border control and the responsibility for managing migration, Europe attempts to outsource its obligations to respect human rights," said Natalia Alonso of Oxfam.
The commission also pledged 6.1 million euros in support to Libya on Tuesday, aimed at stabilizing the conflict-torn country following the establishment of a government of national accord.