The controversial Italian-German plan aimed at creating holding centers in North Africa for would-be refugees was in danger of being sunk by France and Spain on Monday.
France's de Villepin, backed by Spain, rejected the plan
The surprise opposition came during the meeting of the so-called G5 European nations in Florence when French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin told his British, Spanish, German and Italian counterparts that France could not accept the proposal. "We do not want to accept camps or centers of any kind," he said.
France, traditionally a close ally of Germany, would move to halt the Germans and Italians pressing the European Union to build overseas reception camps that would filter the genuine asylum seekers and reject the rest.
The proposed centers, set up outside the 25-nation EU's borders and notably in North Africa, would repatriate those who do not meet immigration requirements. "It is not for Europe to take this issue forward," de Villepin told reporters. Spain also rejected the initiative.
The opponents claim that dealing with refugees should not be left to the European Union alone and that groups such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and non-governmental organizations must take a leading role.
No consensus, laments Schily
German Interior Minister Otto Schily.
"We cannot leave things as they are now," German Interior Minister Otto Schily said on Monday. "We should offer these immigrants, before they embark on a very risky journey, advice on whether they qualify for protection." But he acknowledged: "No consensus has been reached."
While France's traditional ally Germany may feel aggrieved, the Italians will be seething. Italy is a transit route for migrants seeking to enter Europe and in the first week of October alone, some 1,800 migrants landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy airlifted more than 1,000 of them to Libya, with which it has signed a new repatriation agreement.
Europol appointment split over favorites
Another sticking point was the appointment of a new chief for the EU's police agency, Europol, with Germany and France making clear they favored their own men for the job. There appeared to be little progress made to resolve the issue during the two-day summit. "Each of us has his own candidate," de Villepin said. "We don't want to undermine the others, but ours is very good."
The EU missed a June deadline for naming a new head of the agency -- which the ministers agree is vital to the region's fight against organized crime and terror -- as they were unable to agree on a compromise candidate.
Germany wanted to renew the mandate of founding director Jürgen Storbeck, whose term ended on June 30, while France wanted senior French police officer Jacques Franquet.
The agency, based in The Hague, was created in 1999 to help EU states fight organized crime and its mandate has in recent times been expanded to cover the increased threat of global terrorism.
Digital fingerprinting tipped for 2006
Despite the lack of consensus on many issues at hand, the ministers did agree on plans to introduce digital fingerprinting for EU passports from as early as 2006. That would come on top of plans to use digital photos to make passports more secure.
However, the 2006 date will miss a US deadline of October 2005 for EU passports to incorporate such "biometric" security measures if EU citizens want visa-free travel to the United States.