European home ministers on Friday welcomed an EU plan to better coordinate the treatment of migrant arrivals after a furious row erupted between Italy and France over a lifeboat for refugees.
France has accused Italy of failing to respect the law of the sea by turning away the NGO ship and sparking crisis talks in Brussels to avert a new EU row over the politically tense issue.
All sides described the meeting as productive, but Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan, whose country holds the EU presidency, said afterwards there was agreement that “more can and must be done” to find a lasting solution.
Ministers will meet again at a pre-scheduled meeting on December 8 to continue the “difficult discussion”, he said.
European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, the commissioner responsible for “promoting our European way of life”, said Europe could no longer settle for another ad hoc solution.
“We cannot go on event by event, ship by ship, incident by incident, route by route,” he said, recalling that previous crises had been seized by “populist and europhobic forces”.
The number of asylum seekers is still well below 2015 and 2016 levels, but the row has already undermined a bridging pact to spread arrivals more evenly across the 27-state bloc.
– No more ad hoc plans –
Brussels has struggled for years to agree and implement a new shared responsibility policy for migrants and asylum seekers, but the ugly row has pushed the issue to the fore.
Earlier this month, Italy’s new government, headed by far-right leader Georgia Meloni, refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.
The Ocean Viking eventually proceeded to France, where authorities reacted with anger at Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.
The dispute undermined the EU’s interim solution and led to Paris convening the extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states on Friday.
“The Ocean Viking crisis was a bit of an improvisation,” Schinas admitted, defending his commission’s new plan to better coordinate rescue operations and the arrival of migrants and refugees.
“We have twenty specific actions, we have an important political agreement, everyone is committed to working not to repeat this type of situation.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there was no reason for France to take in migrants resettled from Italy if Rome “won’t take the boats, won’t accept the law of the sea”.
Darmanin’s Italian counterpart Matteo Piantedosi downplayed the Ocean Viking incident, saying the meeting was “not about isolated cases or operational management.”
He said he shook hands with the French minister and that there was a “convergence of positions” allowing ministers to resume discussion at the December 8 meeting
The previous plan was drawn up after Mediterranean countries closer to the North African coast, such as Italy and Greece, complained that they were taking on too much responsibility for migrants.
A dozen EU members agreed to take in 8,000 asylum seekers – France and Germany took in 3,500 each – but so far only 117 resettlements have actually taken place.
– ‘Nothing new’ –
To revive the mechanism, the European Commission on Monday presented another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.
It was not well received by aid organizations. Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration at the aid organization Oxfam, described the Brussels plan as “just another rearrangement of old ideas that aren’t working”.
And a European diplomat said: “The action plan that has been communicated to Member States is perfectly fine but does not contain anything new, so it will not solve the migration problem.”
Ministers accepted it nonetheless, and Schinas said it should prevent further crises as Europe tries again to negotiate a global migration plan that would have the force of EU law.
Schinas also recalled that international law of the sea already obliges EU member states to “do what is necessary, namely to save lives” in their national search and rescue areas.
The plan envisages closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs in rescuing migrants whose makeshift, overcrowded boats get into trouble.
And it would see Brussels working more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants from boarding smuggling ships in the first place.
While France and Italy are at loggerheads over high-profile cases of dramatic sea rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.
It is estimated that almost 130,000 undocumented migrants have entered the bloc since the beginning of the year, a 160 percent increase, according to EU border protection force Frontex.