Turning point in Malta? A new approach to EU migration management

The new government in Italy is providing a sliver of hope for stalled migration talks in Europe.

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For several years and counting now the European Union has been stuck on ‘burden sharing’ arrangements for migrants entering its territory. But the new ‘Conte II’ government formed in Italy in September represents an opportunity for a breakthrough. Its choice of former civil servant Luciana Lamorgese to succeed Matteo Salvini as interior minister suggests that the Italian government is now ready to talk constructively with its EU counterparts about the issue – rather than using megaphone diplomacy to accuse others of not doing their share. Last week, interior ministers from Italy, France, Germany, Malta, and Finland gathered in the Maltese city of Vittoriosa. This was the first test of whether a deal might be found by a ‘coalition of the willing’ among EU states. Is progress now possible?

Since June 2018 the European Commission has officially coordinated the disembarkation procedures and relocation for migrants picked up by NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. This was at the request of member states concerned, and since that time the Commission has sought, and failed, to make these ad hoc procedures more predictable, such as by introducing an automatised mechanism for disembarkation and relocation. An approach like this would put an end to the time-consuming negotiations of the case-by-case system that prevails under current rules.

But at July’s informal Home Affairs Council in Helsinki, France and Germany presented a plan that would finally see such a mechanism introduced. Their aim was to engage a coalition of willing member states in setting up a permanent mechanism that would deal with all cases of individuals rescued by private vessels. The proposals would have seen potential asylum seekers automatically relocated, after disembarkation, to the closest safe harbour. However, Italy and Malta, each on the frontline of this issue, reacted coolly to the proposal. The closest safe harbour criterion and disagreements around the application of search-and-rescue rules caused that first attempt to fail. At the same meeting, Italy and Malta jointly presented a non-paper where they called not only for the closest safe harbour criterion to be abandoned, but also for wider solidarity on returns.

But in Malta last week, the five interior ministers present and the outgoing commissioner for migration concluded a preliminary agreement. This is a compromise between the previous positions set out at Helsinki, and the paper will go to the Justice and Home Affairs Council taking place 7-8 October in Luxembourg.

New elements in the draft agreement include the time span that member states will have at their disposal for relocation: a speeded-up four-week time limit for relocating member states to comply, something that addresses a previous call for greater ‘efficiency’ made by Emmanuel Macron. A second new element is the voluntary rotation of safe harbours for disembarkation procedures. This is something that Italy has strongly advocated, but had seem unlikely to make the final draft.

A third important element is the absence of the distinction between so-called economic migrants and asylum seekers. This had been a dividing line between frontline member states and the others, one that Germany had appeared ready to give way on, but that France wanted to persist with. The latter preferred to follow the model of the 2015 emergency relocation mechanism, which was applicable only to asylum seekers with a 75 percent or higher chance of obtaining asylum.

The plan’s proposals for ships and the regulation of their activity at sea are among the boldest parts of the agreement.

In addition, the costs of relocation, reception, and returns are to be borne by the relocating country. Finally, the draft cites a threshold for instances of high levels of migrant arrivals in participating states, presumably as a safeguard clause to help the mechanism function well given its voluntary nature, and to efficiently manage the reception phase. The draft also contains a clause that would allow the whole mechanism to be suspended in case of misuse by third parties or substantial increases in arrivals.

The plan’s proposals for ships and the regulation of their activity at sea are among the boldest parts of the agreement. There is to be a tightening of the rules for search and rescue, and a reinforcement of the importance of maritime law, much of which has been disregarded over the last year. That said, the initiative is rather reminiscent of the code of conduct that Salvini’s predecessor, Italian interior minister Marco Minniti, shared with NGOs active in search and rescue in the Mediterranean in the summer of 2017. As such, the compromise agreement risks once again missing the wood for the trees by assuming that search and rescue constitutes a ‘pull’ factor in migration flows. Still, the proposals overalls represent a move towards rewarding Italy’s renewed spirit of cooperation.

The new plan will remain nothing but ink on paper, however, if the Luxembourg Home Affairs Council does not back it. Back in July, the consensus around the Franco-German initiative had reached a good number of 14 member states, although only eight had said they would sign up to that mechanism immediately. But, for the new initiative to succeed, it will need enough member states to take part to make it viable, as well as content that is acceptable to enough countries while being operable and effective in practice. This time around, there may be enough in it for everyone: some member states could welcome the move as enhancing the predictability of secondary movements (migrants moving from their country of disembarkation to another country). Others, meanwhile, will support the chance to overcome the delays and non-compliance with relocation pledges that continued to be present even within the ad hoc system. It is worth noting, though, that German interior minister Horst Seehofer took pains during the press conference after the meeting to underline that the quotas of migrants relocated per member state will have to be decided based on the number of participating countries.

In addition, the agreement could cause other – currently non-participating countries – to reassess their positions. As currently drafted, the proposals envisage a duration of six month to apply the new system, but they state no geographical limitation. Although they are intended to apply only to the Central Mediterranean Route, this is not made explicit. Does this leave the door open to Spain and Greece to eventually join the initiative? They remain the countries with the highest number of arrivals by sea in 2019 and so may well be open to new solutions.

Vittoriosa was a first step on a long road, but, as a dispute simmering in the EU for so many years, the issues under discussion were never going to be solved overnight. What seems different this time around, and which gives cause for hope, is that there appears to be a change of mindset. In Italy, but in other member states too, the time of hiding amid the confusion of common disagreement seems to have passed. Open minds are more likely to find solutions than those that are closed, so perhaps the meeting in Malta was the start of a new chapter in the EU’s migration negotiations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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