EU heads of state on Thursday vowed to move forward with plans to screen migrants in North Africa for asylum eligibility to try to stem the flow of those making the perilous journey to the continent by sea, part of a desperate attempt to shore up EU unity on an issue that has fueled a political crisis.
No North African countries have so far agreed to sign on to the plan presented at last month’s European Council, although possible EU funding that could bring billions in aid might prove persuasive.
Italy also held up any interim agreements at the summit unless it received concrete commitments that the country would receive help managing the waves of newcomers that arrive from across the Mediterranean Sea.
“Italy doesn’t need any more verbal signs, but concrete deeds,” Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, insisting that the responsibility needed to be shared more equitably across the EU.
Based on the success of the EU-Turkey deal, which outsourced responsibility for stopping migrants entering Europe to the Turkish government in exchange for refugee aid, EU leaders want to expand the idea to Africa.
The costly endeavor reflects the anxiety in Europe over migration, which has turned into a political crisis, even though the number of people reaching Europe’s shores this year has dropped substantially.
A dispute over how Europe should manage migration has deepened since a euroskeptic government with a strong anti-migrant streak assumed power in Italy this month. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government is also in turmoil over her longstanding policy of welcoming refugees fleeing conflict.
Details are sketchy, but the proposed EU plan involves erecting a virtual wall in northern Africa by placing people who try to leave for Europe in centers in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. EU funds would be used to persuade the countries to sign on, although none has signaled interest so far.
Morocco is not interested in hosting a station for screening migrants, Moroccan Ministry of Interior Director of Migration and Border Surveillance Khalid Zerouali told reporters, saying “that’s not the solution.”
Migrants sometimes use the kingdom as a jumping-off point to reach Spain, which has seen a surge in migrants coming across by sea this year.
Zerouali said that about 25,000 have been stopped so far this year.
The lack of enthusiasm for the plan in Africa has not discouraged EU leaders.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who was chairing the two-day leaders’ summit in Brussels, said that partnering with countries outside the EU is the best approach.
“The alternative to this solution would be a chaotically advancing closure of borders, also within the EU, as well as growing conflicts among EU member states,” Tusk said. “Some may think I am too tough in my proposals on migration. But trust me: If we don’t agree on them, then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.”
One of those “tough guys” is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who deployed troops to Hungary’s border and erected a razor wire fence to keep migrants out.
“The invasion should be stopped, and to stop the invasion means to have a strong border,” Orban told reporters on Thursday.
The worsening tensions come despite a decline in the number of migrants reaching Europe.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that about 80,000 people will enter Europe by sea this year, based on current trends — about half as many as last year.
Yet anti-migrant parties have made significant political gains, most recently in Italy, which along with Greece and Spain is among the preferred landing destinations for people from Africa seeking better lives.
Merkel, for her part, is fighting a battle at home and abroad against critics who accuse her of endangering European security with her hospitality. Her conservative coalition is under pressure from the rightist Alternative for Germany party.
The party has seen a surge in support since 2015, when more than 1 million people entered Europe, mostly fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Populist leaders in southern and eastern Europe have rejected Merkel’s calls for a wholesale reform of Europe’s migration system.
However, Merkel is deeply aware of the threat that the issue poses to Europe, notably to its Schengen passport-free travel area —one of the jewels in the EU crown — that allows easy cross-border business and travel.
“Europe has many challenges, but that of migration could determine the fate of the European Union,” Merkel told German lawmakers on Thursday before heading to the summit.
The Christian Social Union in Bavaria, a key partner in Merkel’s coalition government, is demanding that migrants be turned away at Germany’s border with Austria. EU officials fear that such a move would set off a domino effect, leading Austria to seal its border with Italy, and Italy to fully close its ports to migrants rescued at sea.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he hoped that the summit would be a turning point.
“Being rescued in the Mediterranean must not automatically become a ticket to central Europe,” said Kurz, who supports the plan to screen migrants in North Africa.
Brussels wants the IOM and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to oversee the Africa plan, but those organizations prefer to provide sanctuary to migrants inside the EU.
As the summit got underway, screening continued in Malta of 234 people who spent nearly a week at sea on a humanitarian rescue vessel before being allowed to land on Wednesday, to determine whether they are eligible for asylum and relocation to one of eight EU nations.
The Maltese government said that three babies and three adults were being treated at a hospital.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat opened the country’s main port to the German-run ship Lifeline after other EU nations agreed to accept some of those eligible for asylum.
Those deemed “economic migrants” will be sent back to where they came from, he said.
Maltese officials seized the ship, citing irregularities in the sea rescue. The captain is under investigation.
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