The agreement reached by European Union leaders over how to handle refugees and irregular migrants after long, drawn-out talks at a summit in Brussels can be seen as a step in the right direction.

What is crucial now is that the EU shows the political will to implement what was agreed upon at this important summit.

The accord, which includes the setting up of migrant centres in the EU as well as the restriction of asylum seekers’ movement between EU States (an important concession to German Chancellor Angela Merkel) is far from perfect, and much of the language used is vague and lacks detail.

However, the fact that an agreement was reached can only be welcomed, especially when one considers that a failure to reach one could well have led to the end of the Schengen Area and the collapse of Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government in Berlin. This would have been disastrous news at a time when Europe needs to be united and to have a strong and stable, pro-EU German government among its ranks.

The setting up of EU “migrant control centres” – a major concession to Mediterranean frontline states such as Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta – is an interesting proposal. These centres would determine whether asylum seekers are genuine or simply economic migrants, with the latter being returned to their country.

However, both the establishment of these centres and the relocation and resettlement of genuine refugees will be done on a voluntary basis, no doubt the result of the hardline opposition to any form of burden-sharing coming from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is shameful that these four countries continue to turn their backs on one of the principal pillars of the EU, solidarity, while receiving billions in EU funds. They should at least be asked to show solidarity in a different way, such as financing these migrant centres or the EU’s border control agency, Frontex.

It should be pointed out, however, that in the past when the EU promised to resettle some of Malta’s migrants this was also done on a voluntary basis and did not work in practice – something the then Opposition leader, Joseph Muscat, heavily criticised, saying the resettlement of migrants within the EU should be mandatory. It has to be hoped that this time there will be a ‘coalition of the willing’ among EU members who have the political determination to put the concept of burden-sharing into practice.

Of course, a proper management of migration requires Europe to have secure external borders, agreements with third parties and to aid developing countries. The EU summit agreed to increase financing for Turkey, as well as Morocco and other North African States, to prevent migration into Europe, intensify efforts aimed at stopping human traffickers operating out of Libya, release more money for the EU Trust Fund for Africa and to strengthen external border controls.

EU leaders also called on the European Commission to “swiftly” explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms in close cooperation with relevant third countries. These would be regional centres, both in Africa and in non-EU European countries, where migrants could be held and their asylum claims processed in locations which adhere to EU standards. The EU would do well to consider this option seriously, as it could avoid disputes between Italy and Malta over which port migrant vessels should head towards – such as yesterday’s over the Open Arms vessel, the third such disagreement between the two countries in a matter of weeks.

As expected, the summit did not agree to change the Dublin Regulations but did say “a consensus needs to be found… to reform it based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity, taking into account the persons disembarked following search and rescue operations”. We hope that negotiations will eventually be successful in reviewing the Dublin rules which would introduce an element of fairness in the way EU counties are expected to process migrants’ requests for asylum.

The success of this deal will of course depend on its implementation and what type of concrete proposals are made by the European Commission following the summit. The migration accord is not perfect, nor does it eliminate the different opinions within the bloc on this delicate subject. But it is a basis for the future and will hopefully start the process of genuine burden-sharing within the EU while making Europe’s borders more secure.

Europe has made progress on migration over the years. Fewer than 45,000 migrants entered the EU this year, a massive drop compared to the 2015 crisis when thousands poured into the bloc on a daily basis. This trend needs to continue: Europe’s approach must always be one of compassion and solidarity towards genuine asylum seekers combined with firmness towards economic migrants who have no right to seek refuge.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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