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The EU wants to cut off the maritime migrant route from Libya to Italy and is mulling over camps in Africa as a deterrent to would-be migrants. Interior ministers are conferring in Malta, as Bernd Riegert reports.
The Maltese clearly like Europe. "Prelude to Te Deum", the baroque fanfare written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier which has become known as the Eurovision anthem, blares every hour from loudspeakers across the square in front of the Grandmaster's Palace.
The music caught the EU's Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos by surprise. On his arrival at the Grandmaster's Palace, it appeared to bewilder and then amuse him. After listening to a few bars, he straightened his back as if to say to himself and perhaps others: "I am now ready for tricky negotiations about migration."
The talks were indeed difficult because a number of EU member states, such as Poland and Hungary, have refused to implement EU resolutions on taking in refugees, migrants or asylum seekers. Other EU members, such as Germany and Luxembourg, say the resolutions must be implemented in a display of EU solidarity.
Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Claude Asselborn says Greece and Italy, on whose shores most of the migrants arrive, should not be left to shoulder this burden on their own. Malta currently holds the six month rotating presidency of the European Union and it has made migration a priority.
Is Europe needed?
The European Commission has now proposed what it terms "flexible solidarity." Every member state must be prepared to take in a share of asylum-seekers and refugees, Avramopoulos said. However, Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maiziere, warned that "if flexible solidarity means that certain countries don't participate, then that can't be construed as solidarity."
Asselborn said that if a deal cannot be reached this time, people will begin to wonder whether they really need Europe at all. The feeling is that one shouldn't hand more ammunition to rightwing populist critics by standing on the sidelines but should take action instead, he said.
Eighteen months ago, EU interior ministers voted - in the face of opposition from certain eastern European states - to distribute tens of thousands of migrants currently in Italy and Greece across the EU. But so far nothing has happened. Hungary and Slovakia have even retrenched by launching legal challenges with the European Court of Justice against the mandatory resettlement quotas.
The interior ministers could find it easier to reach agreement over beefing up security at the EU's external borders and over dissuading migrants from trying to enter Europe in the first place. De Maiziere says he could envisage the processing of migrants in camps outside the EU in the event of a "mass influx."
Such camps would not, however, be erected in Libya, the main transit country for migrants hoping to reach Europe. "Europe must ensure that refugees are not brought to Europe at all, but taken back to safe places," de Maiziere said. The rescue of migrants at sea would continue, but they wouldn't be brought to Malta or Italy, but would be put on land by vessels from the EU's Sophia mission in Tunisia or Egypt. There it would be decided who was "really vulnerable and needy" and who was not.
The ministers agreed in principle on the need for external camps six months ago. But now there are going to be tangible negotiations with Tunisia and Egypt, the European Commission says. Such camps would be currently inconceivable in Libya because large swathes of territory are outside the fragile government's control. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says a deal with Libya along the same lines as the pact with Turkey would not be worth pursuing. Since March, Turkey has committed itself to take back refugees or migrants that have arrived in Greece from its territory. This measure, together with the closure of the Balkans route, has reduced migrant flows by 80 percent.
'In line with international law'
But refugee and migrant traffic via the Mediterranean route was as almost as high in 2016 as it was in 2015, standing at around 200,000. Estimates say that around 4,000 drowned while attempting the crossing. EU interior ministers want to drastically reduce the numbers coming to Europe via the Mediterranean. "We want to stop the traffickers from plying their trade," de Maiziere said in Valletta. If the refugees or migrants know that they will be rescued but brought back to Africa, then they won't even contemplate paying thousands of euros for a hazardous crossing. But such measures must be "in line with international law," de Maiziere said.
According to the European Human Rights Convention, refugees cannot be simply turned away at the EU's external borders. Every individual case has to be examined on its merits. Refugees cannot be sent back to states deemed unsafe. Asselborn views the prospect of camps in North Africa with misgivings. "The idea of leasing an 'island' outside the EU where refugees from Iraq, Syria or Libya can be cooped up smacks of rightwing nationalism," he said in an interview with the respected German weekly Der Spiegel at the beginning of the year. Such schemes have already been proposed by Austria. "Europe cannot be permitted to become a fortress of complacency," Asselborn said.
The European Commission is to spend 200 million euros ($214 million) on training and expanding the Libyan coastguard. That will not be an easy task in the strife-ridden country. But the EU hopes that a newly equipped coastguard will able to stop and detain vessels carrying refugees or migrants while they are still in Libyan waters. There would then be no legal objections to taking the refugees back to Libya.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have accused the Libyan coastguard of arbitrarily attacking refugee or migrant vessels and indiscriminately detaining their occupants.
Negotiations for 'migration partnerships' with the refugees' or migrants' countries of origin are also underway. The idea is that aid and construction projects will ease migratory pressures. States that assist in the repatriation of refugees and migrants will receive aid money.
EU interior ministers have also resolved for the umpteenth time to pool their databases of asylum-seekers, migrants and visa holders so that controls on the EU's external borders can be tightened. In a few years time, there is supposed to be automatic registration of all arrivals and departures at the EU's external borders. At the moment such systems are far from watertight, especially when attempting to trace radicalized Islamists or terror suspects. "We have agreed on many things, as far as security is concerned," de Maiziere said."I will now urge that they are put into practice as quickly as possible."