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EU summit leaders delay immigration reforms, boost Frontex rescue force

EU leaders in Brussels have pledged to act to stop deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. But while there was agreement to strengthen search and rescue operations, bloc-wide immigration reform will have to wait.

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EU struggles to find consensus over migration policy

Leaders at the EU summit on Friday agreed on three key principles in dealing with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean - prevention, protection and solidarity.

Responding to the deaths of hundreds of migrants at sea this month off the Italian island of Lampedusa, delegates agreed to beef up rescue operations.

“The EU cannot accept that thousands of people die at our borders," said EU President Jose Manuel Barroso. "The scale of the tragedy in the Mediterranean means we have to act now."

Leaders agreed to provide new resources and funding to the EU’s Frontex border agency, which has reportedly saved some 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the past two years. Since 2011, the agency has seen its funding shrink from 118 million euros ($162 million) to 85 million euros.

A new program to share satellite and surveillance data for the detection of stricken small vessels was also agreed upon.

Summit participants also pledged a crackdown on human trafficking and greater help for migrants’ origin countries to stem the flow.

For Italy, the acceptance of the principle of solidarity was particularly welcome, with Prime Minister Enrico Letta sounding a positive note. Southern European countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain have called for greater support from their northern neighbours.

"I think that we reached the key result that the issue has become a European issue, not simply an Italian issue, or Maltese, or Greek," he told a news conference after the agreement was reached.

'Deeply troubled'

Despite that, plans for a thorough revamp of EU-wide immigration policy are set to be decided after next year’s European elections. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann proposed that member states north of the Mediterranean should accept "a certain quota of asylum seekers."

Immigration charities believe between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea while trying to get to Europe over the past 20 years. Some 365 migrants drowned when a ship capsized off the coast the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month, sparking the bloc-wide debate.

“We had a long discussion on refugee policies following the horrible events in the Mediterranean and on the island of Lampedusa," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the summit. "We all have expressed that we are deeply troubled over the events that we had to witness."

Human rights groups condemned perceived inaction at the EU summit. The outcome of the summit "painfully shows that the expressions of sadness and solidarity were nothing more than crocodile tears," said Amnesty International official Nicolas Beger.

Also at the summit on Friday, France resisted efforts by Britain to scrap EU regulations affecting businesses, including rules on food labelling. However, French President Francois Hollande said Paris was in favour of lightening the burden of red tape, provided that consumer rights were not affected.

Thursday, the first day of the summit, was largely dominated by allegations that Merkel’s cell phone had been spied on by the NSA. France and Germany have called for a “no spying” agreement, with Paris and Berlin keen to seek bilateral talks with the US, according to EU President Herman van Rompuy.

rc/ph (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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