The European Commission will be tabling a formal proposal on the first EU-wide resettlement programme for immigrants in September.
Addressing the first meeting of the newly-constituted Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said the Commission was finalising the workings of the first intra-EU resettlement programme and would present it to member states in September for approval.
The European Council had last year agreed on the need for voluntary measures to reallocate immigrants entitled to international protection.
Although Malta and Italy are insisting that this pilot-project should be compulsory, in order to force member states to share the burden of the southern EU member states, Mr Barrot said this was not possible under the EU treaties and would therefore have to be on a voluntary basis.
The news comes as the Commission officially warned Italy not to push back to Libya immigrants rescued on the high seas. During the same meeting, Mr Barrot said he had sent a letter to the Italian authorities insisting that Rome could not send asylum seekers back to countries where their lives and rights might be at risk. The issue of Italy's policy to send back to Libya illegal immigrants found in its waters was raised during the debate by Socialist MEPs from the Italian opposition.
"Member states cannot send back possible asylum seekers to countries where their fundamental rights might be in trouble. We have already told the Italian government this and, in fact, Italy has stopped adopting this policy," Mr Barrot said.
He said he was planning to visit Libya soon to discuss possible cooperation with the EU on migration issues.
The Civil Liberties Committee meeting also discussed the Stockholm programme, a new five-year work programme covering justice, freedom and solidarity. The programme should be finalised under the current Swedish Presidency by December.
Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil, who was recently elected as the EPP's coordinator for this committee, called on the Commissioner to focus first and foremost on implementing measures that had already been adopted, such as the EU Immigration Pact and its solidarity clause.
"While it is good to think ahead, it is important to first implement agreements that have already been adopted. We must implement the Immigration Pact and put into operation the pilot project on burden sharing as quickly as possible," Dr Busuttil said.
Mr Barrot acknowledged the importance of implementation and underlined the need for solidarity between member states through the resettlement of migrants.
The pilot project for a burden-sharing mechanism has specifically been tailored for Malta. Mr Barrot said the project would be operated on an experimental basis in the hope that it could eventually become a permanent instrument of EU solidarity.
Specific reference to such a burden-sharing mechanism is also made in the draft Stockholm Programme presented earlier this year by the Commission.
During the meeting, Mr Barrot reiterated his support for strengthening Frontex, the EU border control agency, and for the idea of establishing regional offices for the agency.
His predecessor, Franco Frattini, now Italy's Foreign Minister, had indicated that one of the sub-offices of Frontex could be set up in Malta in order to cater for the needs of the southern Mediterranean area.