Brussels – The European Union’s 28 leaders are expected to meet for the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to discuss migration, a controversial proposal to set up asylum-seeker processing centres in northern Africa, security, and the economy.
Here’s what you need to know:
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What’s high on the agenda?
Migration and asylum policy. Member states are deeply divided over how to handle the flow of Europe-bound refugees, despite a significant drop in arrivals.
Discussions about reforming the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to apply for asylum in the country they first arrive, reaching a joint migration deal and agreeing on countries’ responsibilities take place amid growing discord.
“This issue is once again showing the weakness of the EU when it comes to sensible, common decisions to take in the field of security, solidarity and cooperation versus national interest,” said Stefano Torelli, a researcher specialising in migration at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.
Are many refugees and migrants still going to Europe?
In short, no.
So far in 2018, 43,000 people have travelled by sea, with most – 16,000 – arriving in Italy followed by Spain, Greece and Cyprus, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Almost 1,000 are believed to have died in the Mediterranean Sea.
At the current rate, the UNHCR expects that 80,000 people will arrive – about half the 2017 number.
The prioritisation of migration above challenges such as unemployment, social inequality and corruption indicates how the issue has become politicised, said Torelli.
“Why this discussion now? This is the result of the internal instrumentalisation of the issue played by some national leaders, one of them being the new Italian minister of interior, Matteo Salvini,” he said.
Where is the migration discussion currently?
Germany requested a last-minute emergency meeting ahead of the summit, which was held on Sunday and attended by 16 leaders in Brussels.
Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – which have refused to accept relocated refugees – boycotted that meeting.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are concerned with shared responsibility for asylum-seekers and stemming the “secondary” migration of refugees between EU countries. France and Spain want to keep refugees in closed centres until their asylum claims have been processed.
We all agree that we have to stop illegal immigration and that we have to secure our borders.
Prime Minster Giuseppe Conte of Italy’s new populist, anti-immigration government has shared a plan to overturn the Dublin Regulation.
In recent weeks, Italy has rejected rescue ships such as the Aquarius – which was carrying 630 refugees and eventually granted docking rights by Spain.
In spite of differences, member states agree on a need to strengthen external borders.
“We all agree that we have to stop illegal immigration and that we have to secure our borders,” Merkel said after Sunday’s meeting.
The EU is considering processing centres in northern Africa. How far along are these discussions?
Dubbed “regional disembarkation platforms”, they could be set up with the UNHCR and the IOM.
France and Italy support the idea.
The ability to maintain high standards of reception and safety of individuals has got to be of chief concern. It's hard enough in the EU.
Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels, said she believes that the proposals will gain momentum at the summit.
“I think the European Commission is investigating it, they’ve been discussing it with various leaders over the last week. A number of countries see this as a way of discussing responsibility sharing in the Mediterranean and to try and resolve some of the search and rescue disputes,” she said.
Even so, she doesn’t anticipate firm conclusions from the summit.
What have African leaders said and are there potential risks?
No African country has agreed to host such a centre, the EU’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has said.
Salvini, Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister and interior minister, met Ahmed Maiteeq, Libya’s deputy prime minister, in Tripoli Monday to discuss setting up facilities in southern Libya. Maiteeq said Libya “categorically refuses” to accept foreign-run centres.
The way this is being perceived on this side of the Mediterranean is, 'Oh these countries are trying to dump their problems on us'.
“This is not surprising, as the country has to cope with other and more pressing security problems,” Torelli said. “Problems exist in the other countries too. Egypt, as well as Libya and Algeria, simply cannot guarantee the minimum standard of respect for human rights when hosting migrants in their detention centres. Tunisia, maybe the only country eligible, does not even have a law regulating the status of refugees.”
The centres could exacerbate domestic social and political tensions, he said.
Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director at the International Crisis Group, said to the best of his knowledge, north African countries have rejected the idea.
“The way this is being perceived on this side of the Mediterranean is, ‘Oh these countries are trying to dump their problems on us’,” he said, adding that getting African leaders on board would mean significant financial and political costs.
Are these centres a viable solution to the refugee crisis?
For Collett, a key question is how the centres would work in practice.
“The ability to maintain high standards of reception and safety of individuals has got to be of chief concern. It’s hard enough in the EU, we’ve seen the situation in the Greek islands and we’ve seen the situation in Niger,” Collett said.
How could this even sound realistic, when almost all the member states failed to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece and Italy in 2015?
Torelli was concerned that “not a single word has been spent on how these centres could work”.
It also remains unclear which member states would accept people once they have been recognised as refugees.
“How could this even sound realistic, when almost all the member states failed to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece and Italy in 2015?” Torelli said.
In a country such as Libya, El Amrani said, with no effective government and where there is already a well-known pattern of abuse, processing centres are “certainly no solution”.
“Europe only looks at Libya through the eyes of the migration crisis. We think it’s a bit of a misguided approach” that focuses on short-term fixes, he said.
While Tunisia is politically stable, the proposed centres would make it a destination, something that could increase local tensions.
Processing centres or “hotspots” come with a range of pressures which “are not easy for the host states to handle”, he said.
What’s at stake?
EU leaders in December set a deadline for the end of June to reach an agreement over asylum-seekers, but a solution remains out of reach.
Torelli said attention should be paid to what Italy and other southern countries propose, although he believes Italy’s requests are directed more at the domestic electorate rather than intended to be accepted by EU member states.
At a press briefing on Monday Natasha Bertaud, a spokesperson at the European Commission, said many of Italy’s proposals “do find echo in what we’re doing, and what we’re planning to … when it comes to reform of the European asylum system”.
Another important discussion point at the summit will be the provision of legal channels of migration.
“I think the only reasonable approach to migration should be providing migrants with legal channels for entering Europe,” Torelli said. “This will curb the illicit traffic and could regularise the flows should the EU reach bilateral agreements with the different origin countries.”
What are the possible outcomes?
Merkel has said she doesn’t expect an unanimous migration solution but hopes for bilateral and trilateral deals.
She also faces a domestic challenge from her conservative coalition partners. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has given her until after the summit to come up with a solution to halt new arrivals. Without one, the hardline minister has vowed to toughen Germany’s border controls – a move that could start unravelling the EU’s accomplishment of border-free movement.
Torelli believes the summit is likely to reflect the fractured state of Europe.
Countries such as Germany are seeking long-term solutions against the backdrop of rising nationalism elsewhere, as anti-refugee sentiment persists in states including Italy, Hungary and Austria.
“I do not think they will come to any real and practical agreement on migration,” Torelli said. “Too different positions and too instrumental.”
What else is going to be decided and discussed?
Decisions concerning taxation, digital and innovation are expected to be adopted. There will be discussions about the next long-term budget, which will run from 2021 to 2027, security, defence and EU-NATO cooperation before the NATO summit in July. Ongoing Brexit negotiations will be reviewed by the EU 27 leaders and there will be talks about eurozone reform.