No firm EU agreement on Austrian proposals for reducing migration
An Italian coast guard vessel carrying 67 asylum seekers. Photo: Alessandro Fucarini/AFP
Austria used the first meeting of EU interior ministers under its presidency of the bloc to advance its tough proposals on the issue, but without reaching firm agreement on its most radical proposals.
After the meeting in the Austrian city of Innsbruck, Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said there had been "a very wide consensus on the need for protecting the EU's external borders", including the strengthening of EU border agency Frontex.
Although the number of migrants fleeing war and poverty has fallen sharply since a 2015 peak, the thorny issue remains a key topic for the six-month presidency of Austria, where a conservative far-right coalition took power last December.
As for the idea of setting up "disembarkation platforms" for migrants, which EU leaders agreed to consider at a crunch summit last month, Kickl said his colleagues agreed that they must be set up in conformity with international law and in a way "which is helpful to relations with third states".
Such "platforms" would most likely be located in north Africa but several countries in the rgion, such as Morocco and Tunisia, have already said they will not host them.
Speaking alongside Kickl, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he was optimistic an agreement with a third country could nevertheless be reached, pointing to the 2016 migration deal between the EU and Turkey as an example of successful co-operation.
However, there appeared to be less firm support for Austria's more hardline suggestions, which include creating "return centres" outside the EU for people refused asylum who cannot be immediately repatriated to their country of origin.
Kickl said only that he and his counterparts had "discussed" the idea and had judged it a "reasonable" possibility.
Earlier EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos had voiced scepticism over the practicalities of the idea.
"Does anybody know one country out of Europe, in the periphery of Europe, that is willing to host such a camp? I don't know so far. Let's wait, it's just an idea," he told reporters.
Luxembourg's Interior Minister Jean Asselborn was scathing about the idea, telling reporters before the meeting it "shouldn't be discussed by civilized Europeans", adding Europe had a "duty" to provide protection to genuine refugees.
There was also little mention after the meeting of a related Austrian proposal to change current EU policy so that it is no longer possible to make asylum requests on European soil, with requests instead to be made in refugee camps to "a sort of mobile commission".
Earlier, Kickl held talks with his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, and Germany's Seehofer.
The three have formed a controversial "axis of the willing" to push for tougher migration policies.
Salvini has banned charity rescue boats that pick up migrants in the Mediterranean from docking in Italy, accusing them of aiding human traffickers to bring migrants to Europe.
On Thursday, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that more than 600 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean over the past four weeks, including babies and young children.
MSF said the deaths took place as there were no NGO rescue boats active in the central Mediterranean and accused European politicans of taking "a cold-blooded decision to leave men, women and children to drown".
Speaking after the meeting with Kickl and Seehofer, Salvini said: "We have taken on the big problem of arrivals: if they go down, we can also solve the smaller internal problems between (our) nations," alluding to the vexed question of migration between EU member states.
Seehofer said he hoped to reach agreements with Italy and Greece by early August over his plans to return migrants to those countries from Germany.
"These are not easy discussions… but it is good that they are taking place," he said on Thursday.
Migrant deals between bloc members are central to the compromise German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached with Seehofer to end a row over immigration within their coalition that has threatened to bring down the government.
Salvini has underlined that Italy expects to see more action to toughen the EU's external frontiers before agreeing to any deal to take back migrants.