Migrants rescued by the Maltese authorities in March | Photo: Reuters
Migrants rescued by the Maltese authorities in March | Photo: Reuters

Migration in the Mediterranean became a focus as Germany took up the rotating presidency of the EU Council in July and the EU’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, visited Malta this week.

Just a week after Germany took up the rotating EU Council presidency, EU interior ministers held an online conference to discuss security and migration in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the EU Commission’s Vice President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Josep Borrell visited Malta, one of the first "in-person" vitis since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Borrell said that the EU is facing “several challenges in our southern neighborhood and I was glad to discuss them today in Malta" with Maltese ministers; including the foreign minister, the president and the prime minister.

In a press statement, Borrell acknowledged that Malta had been "facing huge pressure" regarding migration and that the EU “fully shared Malta’s determination to address irregular migration in a comprehensive way.”

Increased capacity for Libyan coastguard?

Borrell said that the starting point for this "comprehensive" policy would be to address the crisis in Libya and support the Libyan authorities. He said that Libya was the "largest beneficiary in North Africa of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa." Much of that money has gone to strengthening the Libyan coastguard. Borrell said that this work needed to continue, "in order to strengthen their capacity of intervention to dismantle trafficking networks and conduct rescue operations in their area of responsibility."

At the moment, Borrell said, the work to dismantle these networks was being done mainly through the EU naval and air operation Irini and the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM). He added that Malta wanted to “increase the capacities” of the Libyan coastguard too.

'Shameful' handling of migration by EU, Seehofer

While Borrell was talking to the Maltese government, EU interior ministers were taking part in a two-day online conference to discuss security and migration. Now that Germany has taken over the rotating presidency for the next six months, this meeting was led by the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer. 

Seehofer called on his European counterparts to agree on a better and fairer solution for the distribution of migrants rescued at sea. He said it was "shameful" that the EU has still not found a solution five years after the so-called migration crisis.

"Each boat requires painstaking efforts to achieve a distribution (of migrants) among member states," said Seehofer. "And each time, only a small number (of the member states) is ready to do so". He added that the EU cannot leave Italy, Malta, Greece or Spain alone to deal with this issue. "This is a situation that is not worthy of the EU," he said.

Seehofer called for Europe to take a "pragmatic" approach to "those who arrive at the external borders." He once again reiterated the need for "as many member states as possible" taking part in sharing the numbers of migrants who arrive and “returning those who have no right to claim protection in the EU.”

"Europe is a community of values. Respecting human dignity and human rights is the most important thing, and preventing deaths in the Mediterranean is our shared goal," said Seehofer in a press statement at the end of the conference.Migrants from the Talia cargo ship Migrants disembark at Boiler Wharf in Senglea, Malta, on July 8, 2020 | Photo: Picture-allianceMigrants on cargo ship taken in by Malta

During the two day meeting it was announced that a group of 50 migrants who were rescued near Lampedusa by an animal cargo vessel had been allowed on shore in Malta after repeated pleas from the ship’s captain and pro-migrant groups like Alarm Phone and Sea Watch.

The ship had been refused entry in Lampedusa and Malta. Malta, whose search and rescue zone the migrants were in when they were rescued, had said that they couldn’t dock until other EU countries agreed to an automatic sharing out of migrants who arrive on the island nation.

'Bringing new momentum to the topic of migration'

Ahead of the conference, Seehofer already announced that "bringing new momentum to the topic of migration," was one of the German EU presidency’s stated aims.

He said he found his counterparts around Europe "very willing to continue our focused discussions," and promised "conferences will be held soon in Europe to agree on concrete steps." A conference in Italy on July 13 was announced where delegates would discuss "closer cooperation with North African countries," to fight human smuggling and instigate an “effective return policy.”

Malta: Agreement for an automatic mechanism

After Borrell's visit, the Maltese government announced that it had reached an agreement with a number of European countries to relocate more than 280 migrants currently in Malta. 

Malta has repeatedly asked for this mechanism to become automatic, but so far, despite numerous agreements, the sharing out of new arrivals has been done on an ad-hoc and case-by-case basis. 

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela called EU policy in this area a "failure" as Borrell stood beside him, reported dpa. He said they had received more help from Libya in this period than the EU. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Malta received 1,200 migrants in the first four months of 2020. "Hundreds more have disembarked since then," wrote dpa.

Speaking to journalists, Borrell agreed that an automatic mechanism was what was needed to be able to save people at sea and quickly disembark them in Malta before sharing them across the EU. He said "solidarity" was needed on this point and that the EU was “working on that.” However, he also noted that "I cannot tell when and even I cannot tell if the Member States will agree because the role of the Commission is to propose. The Commission proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide."


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