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EU seeks closer North African ties to fight migrant smugglers

September 21, 2018

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(Left to right) European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Austrian politician Wilfried Haslauer, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz walk after posing for a family photo during the EU informal summit in Salzburg on Thursday.—AFP
(Left to right) European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Austrian politician Wilfried Haslauer, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz walk after posing for a family photo during the EU informal summit in Salzburg on Thursday.—AFP

SALZBURG: EU leaders vowed on Thursday to intensify talks with Egypt and other North African countries on how to curb flows of illegal migrants to Europe and to fight those who traffic them.

European Council President Donald Tusk said the leaders meeting in the Austrian city of Salzburg have also agreed to attend a summit with their Arab counterparts in February to tackle migration, among other issues.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said all EU leaders backed the plan to engage more with North African Arab countries and noted that Egypt, at least, is “ready to intensify talks with the European Union”.

“I believe that this will be an important further step in the fight against illegal migration, but above all also in the fight against the business of traffickers,” Kurz told reporters earlier.

Taking the lead in the negotiations will be Tusk, who chairs European summits, and Kurz, whose country currently holds the EU’s sixth-month rotating presidency.

Kurz said the talks would also focus on economic development, echoing an EU approach with sub-Saharan Africa to ease the poverty that often drives migration.

The EU has previously struck cooperation deals with both Turkey and Libya, whose coastguard officers are trained by the Europeans to stop migrant sea crossings.

The deals with the two gateway countries have helped to cut migration to Europe sharply since a 2015 peak, but the bloc wants to expand work with all north African countries.

The 28-nation bloc is increasingly focusing on less controversial plans to bolster its external borders, but sharp splits persist over redistributing asylum seekers who make it to Europe.

Egypt’s foreign ministry confirmed on Thursday it has proposed hosting an EU-Arab League summit on a range of issues, including migration, but did not mention a date.

The Cairo-based Arab League includes North African countries Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as well as those in the Middle East and Gulf.

‘Efficient’ Egypt

Kurz, who visited Egypt with Tusk on Sunday, said Cairo has been “efficient” in the last two years in preventing boats from leaving its shores or forcing them back when they did.

EU sources told reporters that Egypt has set a high bar in fighting traffickers and smugglers, which could be emulated by other North African countries.

Tusk said he will have more talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday. Both are due to attend the UN General Assembly in New York at the weekend.

Tusk called the informal Salzburg summit in a bid to defuse simmering tensions over migration.

Since the summer, Italy has repeatedly turned away rescue ships carrying hundreds of African migrants to force other EU member countries to share responsibility for them.

The migrants were finally relocated to member states and non-member Albania on an ad-hoc basis, but EU countries have for years found an overall relocation plan elusive.

EU diplomats said it will also take time to develop proposals agreed at a June summit to set up centres in Europe and North Africa to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants who can be deported.

The officials say Brussels is not asking Egypt to host a disembarkation platform, which it opposes.

EU diplomats said disembarkation platforms could be part of a broader package, including improved trade, for North African countries.

The EU is still confronted with the refusal of Hungary and other former communist eastern countries to admit migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018