EU leaders reach crunch migrant deal but for many this is a bad case of déjà vu

A deal on migration clinched late at night by EU leaders emphasises that the creation of migrant processing centres on European soil is on a voluntary basis, as is the relocation of migrants between member states

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels for their bi-annual summit (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister)
EU leaders are meeting in Brussels for their bi-annual summit (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister)

A threat by Italy to veto European summit conclusions and hours of intense talks that went deep into the night have produced a migration deal among EU leaders.

The agreement calls for the creation of closed migrant reception centres in EU countries for the fast processing of asylum applications but it fails to say where these centres will be located.

Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez discussing the wording of the text that was agreed late at night in Brussels
Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez discussing the wording of the text that was agreed late at night in Brussels

It also calls for the quick return of those not deserving protection but fails to specify how this will happen.

The agreement also calls on “all ships” in the Mediterranean, which includes migrant rescue ships run by NGOs, to respect international law and not interfere in operations of the Libyan coastguard.

The agreed text also calls for stronger measures to curb the movement of asylum seekers with protection from one EU member state to another, a condition Germany had asked for.

But the crux of the agreement is the “voluntary” nature that underpins the creation of closed centres and the relocation of migrants between member states.

The deal means that the forced quota system to redistribute migrants from frontline states like Italy and Greece, has all but been scuppered after stiff opposition from the Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

For Brussels observers, the emphasis on the voluntary nature of the agreement is a bad case of déjà vu.

Voluntary systems agreed in the past had failed to produce tangible results with only a handful of countries accepting to take in migrants from Malta and Italy.

At one point, the US had taken in more refugees from Malta than all countries of the EU put together, before the EU mandatory quota system was introduced in 2015. The US refugee resettlement programme was eventually halted by the Trump administration.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte

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And while the council conclusions were greeted with elation by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a more cautious approach, insisting still more work had to be done.

Merkel faced a revolt from her junior coalition partner, the Bavarian CSU, which wants border controls to stop migrants moving between EU countries.

In a tweet, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat welcomed the conclusion that called on NGO ships to obey international law. Malta closed its ports to all NGO vessels on Thursday evening, pending an inquiry into the actions of the Lifeline, a migrant rescue vessel that was allowed to disembark 234 migrants in Grand Harbour. The Lifeline captain is likely to be charged in court.

The ship had been almost a week at sea after Malta and Italy refused it entry for disobeying orders from the Rome rescue coordination centre. Malta finally accepted to allow the ship in its port on condition that other EU countries step in to take the migrants.

Nine countries reached an ad hoc agreement, including Malta, Italy and non-EU state Norway, to distribute the 234 migrants once they are processed in Malta.

Italy had refused entry to the NGO vessel Aquarius, leading to a standoff with Malta earlier this month
Italy had refused entry to the NGO vessel Aquarius, leading to a standoff with Malta earlier this month

Italy had threatened to veto the council conclusions unless its demands on migration were met.

In an initial reaction, Conte was quoted by the Italian media declaring victory. “From this Council emerges a Europe that is more responsible and supportive, Italy is no longer on its own.”

However, when asked whether Italy will have migrant reception centres as outlined in the agreement on its soil, the Italian Prime Minister said the decision will be taken over time. “It is a collegial decision but we are not being invited to have these centres.”

Conte heads a one-month-old coalition government made up of the hard-line Lega and the Cinque Stelle. The government has adopted a strong stand against migration and also closed its ports to NGO rescue vessels, leading to a standoff with Malta earlier this month.

Italy has been receiving the brunt of migrants departing from Libya, even though the numbers have dropped over the past year. Italy has been calling on other EU states to share the responsibility by taking in migrants that land on its shores.

However, it remains unclear whether Conte’s elation is misplaced. The voluntary nature of the agreement could very well mean that at the next EU summit in December, leaders will again be pointing fingers at each other for not showing solidarity.

Some of the other measures agreed by EU leaders:

  • Strengthening external border controls, and boosting financing for Turkey and countries in North Africa
  • Exploring the possibility of regional disembarkation platforms outside the EU
  • Internal measures taken by member states to stop migrants moving within the EU
  • Boosting efforts to prevent the development of new sea or land routes into Europe
  • More investment in Africa to foster substantial socio-economic transformation so people no longer leave for a better life
  • Further work to reform EU asylum policy, including changes to the so-called Dublin regulations

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