Brussels has set the ball rolling for the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office (Easo) in Malta, the first EU agency to be hosted by the island.

A formal call has been made to engage the executive director responsible for setting up the operation.

Last week, the Council of Ministers officially endorsed the decision made by member states in November to site the new agency in Malta against stiff competition from Cyprus and Bulgaria.

"The regulation establishing the agency is about to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council and should be published soon. This will end the formalities phase," a Commission official responsible for overseeing the process said yesterday.

"We have just issued a call for the engagement of the executive director of the agency and hope that the selected candidate will be in his new offices in Valletta by autumn so that staff recruiting could start and the agency will be up and running," the official said.

The executive director, who will act as chief executive officer, will be selected following a thorough process that also includes a face-to-face interview with the commissioner responsible for the agency.

Sources close to the Commission said that, although there was nothing precluding a Maltese individual from getting the post, this was almost impossible.

"First of all it is highly improbable that there are already qualified Maltese candidates for such a post. Secondly, it is normal practice for the Commission to appoint executive directors who are not of the same nationality as the member state hosting the agency."

The establishment of the agency offices in Malta is expected to leave a number of economic benefits. Apart from employing some 60 officials, paid high EU salaries, the agency has already been allocated a budget of more than €40 million for its first three years of operation.

"Almost all this money will go into the Maltese economy and this will most probably increase over the years," Commission sources said.

"Easo will also bring about other indirect economic benefits such as the holding of regular conferences, meetings and training activities, which will all need ancillary services such as travelling arrangements, hotel bookings, transport and so many other things."

The new agency will be responsible for helping to improve the implementation of the Common European Asylum System and to strengthen practical cooperation among member states in asylum-related matters.

Easo will also be involved in the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System by providing effective operational support to member states subject to particular pressure on their asylum and reception systems and give scientific and technical assistance for community policy-making and legislation in all areas.

The agency, which will be hosted in a new building adjacent to Maritime House in Grand Harbour just outside Valletta, is expected to be up and running by the end of this year.

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