Malta will try to 'please everyone' on migration
By Eric Maurice
Malta's priorities on home affairs, when it takes over the EU presidency in January, will be to move forward on the reform of the EU asylum system and the control of entries in the bloc.
But the Maltese interior minister Carmelo Abela did not commit to any agreement.
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"We have to be positive, but also pragmatic and keep our feet on the ground," he told EUobserver in a recent interview in Brussels. "There are different opinions in the council [of ministers]."
As a Mediterranean country close to north African coasts and where the number of asylum seekers increases every year, Malta has said that the EU should "distribute the migration load among member states more fairly."
"Within this, attempts to revise the Dublin Regulation which delineates member states' responsibilities for examining asylum applications, will be key," the Maltese government added when outlining its priorities.
Abela said that several legislative proposals were on his table for the six months when he will chair the EU home affairs meetings, but that "Dublin is the most challenging one."
The reform proposed by the European Commission in April includes a permanent and mandatory mechanism to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other countries, with a €250,000 fine for each person a country would refuse to relocate.
It has been rejected by several countries, including Slovakia, Malta's predecessor as EU presidency.
Abela said that he "hope[d] to please every one" by taking "a holistic approach" that focus on relocation but also on returning migrants to their country of origin and improving the security of the EU's external border.
"By concentrating on all aspects, maybe it will be possible to have a compromise," he said.
"If all member states strictly stick to the national positions, it will be very difficult to have a compromise. We need to be more flexible in our positions."
Towards the end of its presidency Slovakia presented a strategy for an "effective solidarity" scrapping mandatory relocation and laying out different ways member states could contribute to managing the migration crisis.
Compromise on relocation
"One has to applaud the Slovak presidency for presenting the paper," said Abela, whose government has been a supporter of relocation.
The Maltese minister noted that the commission proposal "was not enough to start a debate," and that the Slovak paper was "a good base for continuing discussing."
"We need to have further discussion but it can be a way forward to arrive at a compromise," he noted.
The search for a compromise on the future of asylum policy is being made more difficult by differences over the current plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers before next September.
Abela noted that member states last year "pledged to relocate x amount of refugees" and that they "need[ed] to adhere to the pledge that was made last year," even if some member states voted against the decision.
"We should try and see if there are difficulties to implement [the decision] and we can see the reasons and try to assist" when necessary, he said. But he admitted that with some member states the difficulties were more political than practical.
The other big issue the Maltese presidency will try to push forward is control of external borders.
Abela said the EU "achieved a lot" this year with the establishment of a EU border and coast guard corps.
The next step will be an agreement between member states on the so-called entry-exit system to collect data on people who enter the passport-free Schengen area and spot overstayers.
"If we manage to agree on the entry-exit system, maybe we'll have a less difficult time with ETIAS," he said.
The European Travel Information and Authorisation System, a wider plan to manage entries of visa-free travelers in Schengen and collect their personal data, was proposed last month by the commission.
EU migration commissioner presented it as "the missing link in our border management, connecting the dots with our migration and security policies."
But the plan has not yet been discussed by ministers, and Abele noted that "we don't know exactly where member states stand."
As chair of the interior ministers' meetings, Abela will also have to look at how last March's EU-Turkey agreement to reduce migration is implemented.
Tensions in Turkey and between the EU and Ankara have triggered concerns that the agreement could unravel.
"We see fewer and fewer crossings," the minister noted, adding that the agreement "is giving results, we need to continue" with it.
But he said that "one should never close the door to any kind of solution" if the agreement failed.
"I don't think that we should as this point in time consider alternatives, but we need to be aware that already thousands of refugees are in Turkey with a possibility of entering Europe," he observed.