EU migration deal appeases internal tensions but does not address Maghreb concerns

European politicians are counting on the vulnerability of Maghreb countries to economic pressure to render the concept actionable.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Populists at the helm. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) speaks with French President  Emmanuel Macron at EU summit in Brussels, on June 28.  Since end of June, Austria has assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months. (AP)
Populists at the helm. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron at EU summit in Brussels, on June 28. Since end of June, Austria has assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months. (AP)

LONDON - EU leaders have agreed to a hard-fought but vaguely worded migration deal that includes a provision to “swiftly explore” the possibility of setting up “regional disembarkation platforms” that are likely to fuel tensions with Maghreb countries.

While the agreement seems to have partly appeased the European Union’s internal tensions and was cautiously welcomed by European leaders, it did not seem to factor in the strong reservations that Maghreb countries have about “regional disembarkation platforms” on their shores.

The EU agreement does not specifically mention the Maghreb as the site for such “platforms” but the consensus among experts is that European politicians intend to negotiate the idea with North African countries. They are counting on the vulnerability of Maghreb countries to economic pressure to render the concept actionable.

Before the June 28-29 summit, EU officials asserted intentions to “intensify cooperation” with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. An EU delegation visited various sites, including refugee camps, in Libya.

However, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia have shown little enthusiasm for hosting the centres. War-torn Libya is hardly an ideal location, given the absence of a central authority to guarantee the enforcement of any deal.

“We must work with Libya, of course, but also with other countries such as Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria,” said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, a strong advocate of the regional disembarkation concept.

“The proposal was put to the head of our government a few months ago during a visit to Germany. It was also asked by Italy, and the answer is clear: No!” said Tunisian Ambassador to the European Union Tahar Cherif. “We have neither the capacity nor the means to organise these detention centres. We are already suffering a lot from what is happening in Libya, which has been the effect of European action.”

The European Union is said to be considering the duplication of its 2015 deal with Turkey. Europe allocated $3.5 billion to Turkey in exchange for help controlling the migrant and refugee flow to Europe, with a second $3.5 billion tranche following the meeting. Maghreb experts expressed serious doubts over the applicability of the Turkish deal to the much more complex situation in North Africa where socioeconomic pressures are a key driver of the region’s own illegal migration problem.

Maghreb countries see these “regional disembarkation platforms” as refugee camps that are politically unpalatable and a potential source of endless problems. The European Union is seeking to assure critics by confirming that they will only be established in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said: “We are not talking about external processing centres, that is the key point… These centres should be in Europe.” He added that “disembarkation” points cannot be in Libya considering the chaotic situation there.

The deal states that migrants rescued in the Mediterranean would be sent to “regional disembarkation platforms,” not Greece, Italy or Spain, which have complained they were bearing the brunt of the so-called migration crisis.

Migrants and asylum seekers already in the European Union would be moved to so-called controlled centres from where they could be relocated throughout the bloc if eligible for asylum or returned to their countries of origin if not.

The deal confirms that the creation of the controlled centres would be “on a voluntary basis” and funded by the European Union. France and Austria have said they should be counted out.

The hypothetical controlled centres promise “rapid and secure processing” to sift economic migrants from genuine asylum seekers, with relocation measures being up to the member state in question, something that potentially allows different criteria among EU members on who gets to stay.

EU leaders also agreed to beef up external borders, clamp down on people smuggling and allocate more funds to countries such as Turkey and Morocco to help prevent migrants from leaving for Europe.

The issue of “secondary movement,” which threatened to cause a rift in the German government between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her migration hardliner Interior Minister Horst Seehofer also looked to be resolved. Seehofer threatened to start turning failed asylum seekers back from German borders unless Merkel agreed to a deal.

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