Last week, senior officials from Malta, Italy, France, and Germany attended a migration summit in Malta along with Finland – the country that currently holds the presidency of the European Union. The topic of conversation? Migration – a particularly pressing issue following threats from Turkey to reopen borders, should they fail to receive support in establishing a safe zone for Syrian refugees.
While details regarding the practicality of potential policies tabled at the Malta summit have yet to be fully disclosed, the general concept of the proposal involves relocating rescued migrants to various EU countries within four weeks of being brought ashore. It would then be the responsibility of the host country to handle the asylum request of each migrant – welcoming them in if they meet the necessary requirements, or repatriating them should they not.
Any new policies would build on the European Commission’s 2015 plan to relocate migrants throughout the Union at the height of the refugee crisis.
The next step entails the presentation of this new plan to interior ministers from all EU nations on October 8th. Current signatories are eager to confirm the involvement of as many nations as possible while momentum remains. Nevertheless, and bearing in mind that joining the deal is voluntary for bloc Members, concern remains that there will be a lack of participation as national interests come into play — primarily amongst stridently anti-migration administrations such as Hungary and Poland.
For now, it is unclear whether there will be financial incentives for nations who decide to sign the agreement.
Malta and Italy Welcome New Policies
Maltese and Italian backing is fundamental to the success of the forthcoming deal, with the two Mediterranean countries having borne the brunt of refugee inflows from North Africa. Both countries have hardened their stance toward migrants – particularly Italy due to right-wing politician Matteo Salvini, who until recently served as Deputy Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, and since Salvini’s removal from office following the formation of a new Italian government, the EU has moved to support both Southern EU nations by recognising their unique exposure to migrant flotillas fleeing war and poverty in Africa.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said that the recent migration summit brought reassurance to both Malta and Italy. “From today, Italy and Malta are not alone. There is a recognition that these two countries represent the gateway to Europe”, adding that the plan is ambitious but places Europe on sound footing to meet the challenges of the ongoing crisis.
Maltese Minister for Home Affairs and National Security Michael Farrugia joined Lamorgese in welcoming the agreement, but noted tangible help on the ground to assist Malta, Italy, and other Mediterranean countries dealing with the ongoing influx would be evidence of true proof of progress. “We have started to make history, but it all depends on the support of all or most of the other EU countries in accepting to participate in the disembarkation and distribution of migrants”, he said.
Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, reiterated that the summit marked an important first step – but that it was just a step. He tweeted; “The #MaltaMigrationMeeting achieved progress with a blueprint that can serve as basis for redistribution of migrants. It is an important step but albeit just one step. Success depends on widespread endorsement. We will continue working together.”
Italy’s Tumultuous Migration Stance
Italy’s willingness to reach an agreement is a significant change from Rome’s most recent stance on migration. During most of 2018 and 2019, the influence of the League political party – that was co-governing Italy along with the 5-Star Movement – led to laws blocking access to Italian ports for rescue ships carrying migrants, and the threatening of NGOs with fines of up to 1 million euros if they tried to dock.
The sudden collapse of the League’s coalition with the Five-Star Movement, however, has allowed a more centrist coalition to form. This new government is seeking to undo some of the damage done to Italy’s relationship with other European partners during the time of the abrasive League/Five-Star coalition.
According to a piece in the New York Times, European governments intend to act swiftly in securing a deal due to the mercurial nature of Italian politics, and the almost continual uncertainty as to how long any administration may survive in office. “They (EU governments) see a window of opportunity in Italy, because there’s a government that isn’t screaming about migrants and they don’t know how long this government will last”, said Anna Triandafyllidou, Professor of Immigration Policies at Ryerson University of Toronto.
Speaking during a recent visit to the Giuseppe Conte led administration in Rome, French President Emmanuel Macron said; “I deeply believe the response to the subject of immigration is not in looking inward or in nationalist provocations but in building effective European solutions.”
The outcome of the recent Malta migration summit creates optimism that a solution to one of the bloc’s most pressing challenges may be underway. Nevertheless, unity and solidarity across the Union are a must if realistic and long-term solutions are to be found.