Key EU interior ministers seek to resolve Mediterranean rescue crisis

Vittoriosa, Malta – Interior ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Malta, Finland and the European Commission are meeting on Monday to seek a solution to an ongoing stand-off over migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean.

The search for a conclusion

“I cannot say one 100 per cent that we will succeed today but the intention … is that we come to a conclusion,” Maltese Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia, who is hosting the meeting in the town of Vittoriosa, told reporters.

“We hope that the meeting will go well, there are good prospects,” Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said.

The basic idea is that a coalition of the willing among EU countries should agree that migrants who arrive in Italy and Malta should be automatically and quickly redistributed elsewhere in the EU, without arguments or drama.

However, there are several open issues, including where migrant rescue vessels should be made to dock, how long it should take for them to be transferred to other EU nations, and exactly what kinds of migrants should be covered by the agreement.

Notably, Italy and Malta want the deal to cover so-called economic migrants, or migrants with little chance of winning asylum, as well as genuine asylum seekers. Economic migrants make up the overwhelming majority of the people who cross over from North Africa.

”A window of opportunity”

There are also the questions of which ports should grant entry to the migrants, and whether redistribution should take place only for migrants intercepted at sea by NGO, navy or coastguard units, or also for those who make it to European shores on their own.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.

Over the past months, migrants rescued by charity vessels have been left waiting at sea for days and weeks because Italy and Malta refused to take them in until other EU nations agreed to take a quota of the incoming migrants.

This resulted in rows – usually fuelled by Italy’s far-right leader and anti-migrant former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – and hastily arranged burden-sharing deals brokered by the European Commission.

Italy now has a more pro-EU government which has stopped refusing entry to migrant vessels, while Salvini has been sidelined into opposition. Seehofer and others see this as a window of opportunity to end intra-EU rows on migration.

Responsibility to find a ”humane” solution

“I think we, as Europeans, have an obligation to find a humane answer to the big issue of the century, migration, and one that also creates order. I have been fighting for this for four years, and we sadly have made no progress at all on this matter,” he said in Malta.

Seehofer previously said Germany would be willing to take one quarter of migrants rescued at sea as part of a “flexible solidarity” deal that would not necessarily include all 27 members of the EU (excluding Britain). France is expected to offer a similar amount.

Finland is taking part in Monday’s talks as it holds the EU presidency. Should the outlines of a deal be agreed, the plan is to present it for wider approval at a meeting of all EU interior ministers on October 8.

“Hopefully if we come to a conclusion today, […] we have to see which [other EU] countries voluntarily want to come forth to assist both in the disembarkation and relocation process,” Farrugia said in Vittoriosa.