Monday

24th Feb 2020

France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants

  • Interior ministers are meeting next week in Malta to discuss migration (Photo: Mission Lifeline)

France and Italy want arriving migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea to be automatically distributed throughout the European Union.

The demands, made on Wednesday (18 September) in Rome by French president Emmanuel Macron and Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte, come ahead of a meeting among interior ministers next week in Malta.

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"I am convinced that an automatic European mechanism is needed for the reception of immigrants," said Macron, suggesting penalties be imposed on EU states that refuse to participate.

The French president had announced similar Franco-German plans over the summer after he claimed 14 EU member states had signed up to "solidarity mechanism" for allocating asylum-seekers across the bloc.

While NGO boats continued to arrive packed with people, many fleeing violence from Libya and elsewhere, lengthy stand-offs on who would take them remained entrenched.

These stand-offs required the European Commission to step in and coordinate among governments, on an ad-hoc basis, the distribution of people stuck on the boats.

In one case last month, it took two weeks before talks even started on how to disembark over 150 migrants stranded on a Spanish rescue ship.

But Macron's comments also come amidst widening criticism, given his tougher stand on asylum within France in what appears to be a pandering response to wider support for Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration Rassemblement National (RN, National Rally).

A backlash from within Macron's own centrist La Republique en Marche (LREM) party has since emerged, with over a dozen members signing a statement demanding people stop confusing economic migrants with genuine asylum seekers.

Salvini out

Macron is now banking on Rome's new-left leaning government to patch up shaky relations, following an earlier diplomatic dispute with the leader of the 5-Star Movement.

Meanwhile, Conte is pressing ahead with Macron's bid for the EU system, telling reporters in Rome that "it's vital for Europe to turn the page towards the structural, and no longer emergency, management of migrants".

Italy's government is composed of the centre-left Democratic Party and anti-establishment 5-Star, which has also since softened its tone on migration following the ousting of far-right leader Matteo Salvini.

Under Salvini's 14-month stint as interior and deputy prime minister, Italy had effectively shut down Italian ports to humanitarian ships.

The EU's naval operation Sophia had also withdrawn all its boats given a dispute over where to disembark rescued people.

Window into the past

But these renewed efforts for an automatic distribution that could carry penalties will meet stiff resistance from countries like Poland and Hungary.

The EU Council in 2015 agreed to a similar proposal to distribute some 120,000 people using a quota system. It ended in massive rifts with dissenting member states.

Hungary and Slovakia had refused to take in around 2,000 people, leading to EU court battles with the European Commission, which they both lost.

The automatic relocation plan was then proposed again as part of an overhaul of the EU's asylum reform package.

Years of discussions among EU states and several efforts by EU presidencies to resolve the bitter divide over relocations has since remained elusive.

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