LUXEMBOURG — Four EU countries that came up with a plan to relocate asylum seekers rescued in the Central Mediterranean had a hard time convincing others to sign up during a meeting of the bloc’s interior ministers on Tuesday.
The countries behind the so-called Malta deal (Germany, France, Italy and Malta) had hoped to use the meeting to get backing from other member states. Before the meeting, diplomats who worked on the deal said success would mean increasing the number of countries supporting the plan to 12.
They didn’t reach that target. French European Affairs Minister Amélie de Montchalin told reporters ,“We have been able to enlarge the circle of countries willing to support us with this rapid relocation in case of new boat arrivals. There are around 10 countries ready to take part.”
However, diplomats said just three countries expressed a clear desire to join in — Luxembourg, Ireland and Portugal — with several others yet to make a decision.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said, “Three or four countries … have said they are available” and added that “we must try to broaden the sharing.” She said more work would be done to sell the merits of the plan in the coming weeks.
The Malta deal, signed in Valletta last month, envisages a temporary voluntary relocation mechanism for asylum seekers rescued at sea. The accord is seen as the first step toward a permanent relocation mechanism as well as a test of the will of other EU countries to help Italy where, even though arrival numbers are not that high, the issue is highly political. The far right, which was in power until August, used the lack of European solidarity on migration to make electoral gains.
“I understand the political reason, I understand the need to help a pro-EU government … but looking at the situation on the ground, this deal is irrational,” complained one EU diplomat, referring to the low number of arrivals in the Central Mediterranean.
Ministers were shown a chart detailing the number of first-time asylum applications per 1 million inhabitants between January and July this year. Cyprus, Malta and Greece were at the top and Italy was down in 16th place.
Berlin has invested heavily in the Malta deal, which it sees as a way to help unblock talks on broader reform of EU asylum policy.
“This is my fight for a common European asylum policy,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters on his way into the meeting.
Yet he didn’t hide his frustration at trying to find potential partners: “We cannot ask Greece to take refugees also from the Central Mediterranean, Visegrad countries are not willing to receive refugees but … there are other ways to show solidarity, with personnel and financing. France is contributing, Spain is itself burdened … We still don’t have a government in Belgium.”
One of the main problems Seehofer and other supporters of the scheme face is that some countries — including Cyprus and Greece — are already seeing arrival numbers that are higher than Italy’s. Three states — Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria — complained in a document that “in recent months the attention of EU Member States has been mainly focused on the Central Mediterranean” and that the Eastern Mediterranean route has not been “properly addressed despite the fact that all relevant reports confirm the increasing, persisting trend of arrivals in this region.”
“There’s some bad blood in the corridors for a deal that helps Italy that has no migration crisis,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Another key issue that has made progress on the Malta deal more difficult is the situation in Turkey. The Turkish defense ministry said on Tuesday that preparations for an offensive in northern Syria have been “completed,” raising the prospect of a new humanitarian crisis at Europe’s external borders.
“The dramatic increase in migratory flows in the Greek islands and in other parts of Europe … tells us that if we want to be serious and not to be caught out for the second time … we should not ignore the possibility that a new crisis can emerge,” Greek Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos told POLITICO.
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