EU Edges Closer to Migrant Agreement Despite Resistance from Italy

By James Carstensen | July 24, 2019 | 8:29pm EDT
Italian Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – European Union ministers are inching toward a “coalition of the willing” for the distribution of migrants rescued while crossing the Mediterranean sea. But the move faces resistance from Italy, whose deputy prime minister boycotted the meeting and denounced decisions “solely taken in Paris and Berlin.”

The union faces challenges about what to do with thousands of people, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, who in a bid for new lives in Europe make the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. Ships run by non-governmental agencies have been rescuing migrants traveling on unseaworthy boats, but then struggle to find ports that will allow them to disembark.

Speaking after a meeting of several of his counterparts in Paris on Tuesday, Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn said it was imperative for the E.U. to restore migrant rescue and anti-trafficking operations in the Mediterranian.

“When these people arrive in Malta and Italy, they arrive in Europe,” he said. “And Europe has to find a solution for it.”

Asselborn suggested a system of rotation of receiving ports, managed by E.U. agencies, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Ministers and UNCHR and IOM officials agreed to meet again in Malta in early September to take the distribution plan forward.

Since the crisis escalated in 2015, the E.U. has been unable to find consensus on a plan to distribute arriving migrants among its 28 member states, with particular resistance from eastern members such as Hungary and Poland. This has essentially forced Italy and Malta to process all asylum seekers arriving by sea.

Italy stopped taking in boats last year, after a populist coalition government came to power after campaiging on an anti-migration platform.

Despite wanting the E.U. to agree on a migrant distribution mechanism, Italy boycotted a foreign ministers’ meeting on the topic on Monday.

“Italy does not take orders from others,” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter on Monday evening. “If [French President Emmanuel] Macron wants to discuss immigrants, he should go to Rome.”

During Monday’s meeting, Macron had announced that 14 member states voiced agreement “in principle” on a draft Franco-German proposal to form a voluntary-basis migrant distribution agreement.

The French president signalled, however, that he would not support proposals for providing extra funds for member-states which do not pull their weight in taking migrants.

“Europe can’t be a la carte when it comes down to solidarity,” he said. “We can't have states which say ‘We don’t want any of your Europe when it’s about sharing the burden but we do when it’s about structural funds.’”

Details of the Franco-German document have not been published, nor have the 14 members which purportedly support it been named – although a source cited by Reuters said they included Finland, Luxemburg, Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland.

The AFP wire report says a copy it has seen states the proposal aims “to ensure the swift and dignified disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea by private vessels in the closest safe harbour.” It says countries opting in will “ensure the relocation of those applying for international protection to our national territories is achieved as fast as possible.”

“I think that we have not yet reached our goal, but we have managed to get much further than we have been before,” German foreign minister Heiko Mass said after the meeting. “The haggling around rescues in the Mediterranean has to be ended.”

François Gemenne, a specialist in migration dynamics at Sciences Po in Paris, told French radio on Sunday that the idea of a voluntary migrant distribution scheme was “too optimistic.”

However, he said it was in the bloc’s political interest to end the Mediterranean rescue crisis.

“Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are well aware that if we do not bring the current [migrant] situation to an end, it could destroy Europe and completely unravel the [European] project,” he said.

The central Mediterranean crossing is rated the world's most deadly migration route.

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 683 migrants have died making the attempted crossing this year.  Over that same period, a total of 34,226 migrants have arrived.

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