Southern EU countries sometimes called ‘Club Med’ of MED5 on Saturday (20 March) showed a united front at a meeting in Athens, urging solidarity from other EU states in sharing the migration burden.
Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Malta and Spain took part in the talks ahead of a 25-26 March EU video summit focusing on EU-Turkey relations.
Four of those southern EU countries that bear the brunt of refugee arrivals — Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain — have already told the European Commission that a proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum does not share the burden of migrants arriving in Europe widely enough.
“We repeat our strong plea in favour of a needed true balance between solidarity and responsibility as in its current format the Pact does not provide sufficient reassurances to the front-line Member States”, the common statement said on Saturday.
The Commission wants to overhaul the rules so that the asylum-seekers are shared out across the 27 member countries and not left the responsibility of Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain.
Aware that some countries, mainly eastern EU states, resist that, the new pact proposes they contribute funds instead to help the others taking in asylum-seekers.
On Saturday the ministers of the five front-line countries stressed the “need for an automatic and mandatory relocation mechanism to be put in place” and “a centrally managed European return mechanism, coordinated by the Commission and supported by relevant EU agencies such as FRONTEX”.
The MED5 group asked for an increase in “cooperation with origin and transit countries” but also to “ensure that the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement is fully implemented by both the EU and Turkey towards all Member states”.
Cyprus and Greece are strongly critical of Turkey.
Ever since a migration crisis in 2015 that saw over a million asylum-seekers enter Europe, the EU’s refugee and migration rules have been exposed as deficient.
Under a 2016 EU-Turkey pact, Ankara had agreed to take back migrants not entitled to international protection in return for billions of euros in aid.
But Ankara has long accused the EU of not fulfilling its end of the bargain while it continues to host more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
‘Punished for our geographic position’
The ministers who met at a hotel in Vouliagmeni, a seaside suburb of Athens, were joined by the vice-president of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“We can no longer be punished because of our geographic position. We can no longer be punished for saving lives at sea,” Malta’s Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said.
Greek Migration Minister and host Notis Mitarachi warned that “the pact shouldn’t allow in future the emergence of new camps like Moria”, referring to a notorious Greek island refugee camp destroyed by fire.
He added that “there is a lack of balance between the obligations of the countries of first reception and the uncertain mechanism of solidarity of the rest of the EU”.
Fernando Gomez, Spain’s Interior Minister, stressed the importance of effective European cooperation with third nations, namely migrants’ countries of origin and those they pass through on their way to Europe, “as the most effective formula of illegal migration prevention”.
The need for a repatriation mechanism coordinated by the European Commission was also underlined by Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese.
Cyprus Interior Minister Nikos Nouris blamed Turkey for “organised and systematic provocative activity” in relation to migrants and called for the EU to react on that in the coming EU summit.
“It is high time for geography to be reconciled with solidarity,” Schinas said earlier on Saturday, adding that the new pact should “reassure the European south that the handling of the migratory issue starts outside our borders”.