Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said on Thursday (12 January) that he will push to replicate the deal struck with Turkey last year to defuse the refugee time bomb in Northern Africa.
“There is an appetite now at EU level, including Chancellor Merkel, to replicate the Turkey deal in the central Mediterranean. Not in the sense of the same agreement on paper, but rather on breaking the business model of human traffickers,” said Muscat.
The EU and Turkey last year struck a deal where Ankara has committed to take back refugees and migrants from Greece. That has had an enormous dissuasive effect, Muscat conceded.
The number of asylum seekers landing in Europe since the signature of the deal nosedived by almost two-thirds to 364,000 in 2016, according to the EU border agency Frontex.
In keeping with the ebb in figures on the Eastern Mediterranean route, the number of refugees across the Western Balkans in 2016 also substantially fell to 123,000 from 764,000 in 2015, according to Frontex.
Trying not to give any judgement on the Turkey deal itself, the Maltese prime minister said it was the only viable solution on the table.
However, the window of opportunity is closing, he added, as the number of people crossing over the Central Mediterranean could reach unprecedented levels next spring.
Act now or face the consequences
“We all know it,” he insisted. “So we have a choice: either we do something now, or we would need to meet urgently in May to face the emergency.”
Muscat held up the deal reached earlier this year between Italy and Libya as a model for a solution.
Stopping immigration is a top priority of Italy’s new government under Paolo Gentiloni and his centre-left Democratic Party.
Around 90% of the refugees arriving in Italy come from Libya, according to the Italian interior ministry. The number in 2016 was up to 176,554. That is eight times higher than in 2013.
According to a UN report, most of the migrants arriving in Italy in 2016 were from Nigeria, Eritrea and Guinea. More than 5,000 died in the attempt, making 2016 the deadliest year on record.
Italy’s new Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, reached an agreement with the head of Libya’s Presidency Council Faiez Serraj to block illegal migration routes from Libya.
“We all know that we cannot place Turkey and Libya on the same level. Turkey has a very solid government and bodies, maybe too solid, but it’s a state. Libya is on the brink of becoming a failed state,” Muscat said.
The accord could be a basis on which to build a full-fledged EU-Libya agreement. “There should be a political signal from the EU that it is ready to engage with Libya,” the Maltese premier insisted.
The EU already has a framework agreement that was drafted during the Gaddafi era. Regarding border control, nothing fundamental has changed since then.
At risk of being criticised, Muscat also argued for a rapid and proactive deal, not least because the Russian navy has been carrying out exercises in Libyan territorial waters.
“The Italian government should not be left on its own when it comes to the financial package offered to Libya,” he warned.