EU leaders to discuss migration, in Trump's shadow
By Eszter Zalan
EU leaders will focus on stemming migration to Europe via Libya in their informal meeting in Malta on Friday (3 February), pledging to boost aid and training for the North African countries.
After successfully shutting down the migration route through the Western Balkans last spring, where over one million people arrived to Europe in the last two years, leaders are hoping to do the same on the so-called central Mediterranean route.
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EU officials say 90 percent of arrivals to Europe now come through Libya and Italy, most of whom are "irregular economic migrants", and do not have the right for international protection.
Over 181,000 arrivals were detected in 2016, while over 4,500 people drowned.
Officials point out that while there are very few Syrians traveling through Libya to get to Europe, there are genuine asylum-seekers among the newcomers.
For instance, 20 percent of those coming from Nigeria, where the extremist Boko Haram group is gaining a stronghold, have successfully lodged asylum claims, an EU source said.
Leaders are expected to pledge more aid for host communities to tackle the migration flow, to provide training for Libyan border and national coast guards, to help protect Libya's southern borders, and plan better information campaigns about the dangers of leaving for people who consider migrating.
There is no talk of a deal similar to the agreement with Turkey last year, which the Turkish stepped up efforts to stop migrants from crossing the sea to Greece and pledged to take back migrants in return for resettling refugees in Europe.
Part of the reason is that the Libyan government is less capable and effective than Turkish authorities.
"We are not copying the eastern Mediterranean solution," said an EU source, adding that the objective is the same - to reduce the number of migrant arrivals.
The notion of asylum centres, so-called hotspots, being created outside of EU borders in transit countries to deal with asylum claims is not on the agenda at the EU summit in Valletta, the EU source said.
The idea has gained traction over the last few weeks, with Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maiziere recently saying he supports setting up zones outside Europe to screen people seeking refuge.
Exit UK, enter Trump
While UK prime minister Theresa May will be present at the migration discussion, further talks about the EU's future will take place Friday afternoon without the British premier.
It is the second meeting for the EU 27, the first in Bratislava last year, to discuss the kind of union the leaders envisage after Brexit, that can better connect with European citizens.
Talks on Friday will be aimed at focusing on the scope of a declaration that will be adopted at the end of March in Rome, where the EU 27 leaders will meet to mark the 60th anniversary of the summit that gave birth to the EU.
"The purpose is for leaders to reach a common understanding what they want to get out of the Rome summit, which must be an occasion to renew commitments to the European cooperation, and reflect on the new realities," an EU official said.
The elephant in the room will certainly be US president Donald Trump.
In an extraordinary letter this week to leaders, EU council chief Donald Tusk described Trump as threat to the EU.
While some leaders, for example Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban feel emboldened by the take-no-prisoners style of Trump, in Brussels the new US president rang alarm bells when he implied a break-up of the EU and called Nato "obsolete".
Trump is expected to be discussed in a wider context about changing geopolitics, as leaders will want to debrief their colleagues who have already talked with the new US president.