Eyes were on Germany on Thursday as the European Union’s migration ministers met in Brussels to discuss how to handle refugees and migrants arriving by sea as Berlin and Rome worry over rising immigration ahead of key elections.
The ministers are searching for agreement on a long-stalled system for sharing out across the EU asylum seekers who reach Europe outside of the official border crossings.
Diplomats were hoping that German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser brings a coalition deal to Brussels to allow Berlin to back the so-called “crisis mechanism” for distributing people to avoid overwhelming Italy and other countries of entry.
The bloc’s 27 governments want to have that in place to look in control for their voters ahead of a pan-EU parliamentary election in 2024.
Faeser said on arriving to talks with her EU peers that she was expecting a positive outcome. Her comments were echoed by the interior minister of Spain, the chairman of the meeting:
“I hope that at the end of the day we will be able to give you the good news in this regard,” Fernando Grande Marlaska told journalists.
“This would make it possible… that before the end of the legislature we will really have a fully effective migration pact, which is what we want.”
On Wednesday Germany announced new border controls within what normally is Europe’s zone of open travel in an effort to combat people smuggling.
The border checks with neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic were in response to a nearly-80% rise in asylum requests so far this year, a concern for the centre-left ruling coalition facing a challenge from the far-right in local elections in Bavaria next month.
Such controls highlight how difficulties in handling those fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and south Asia challenge cooperation inside the bloc.
“Obviously, nobody is happy with new internal border controls,” said a senior EU diplomat, adding that an agreement on the “crisis mechanism” would shore up the EU’s struggling migration system and reduce the need for such measures.
Migration experts, however, warn about practical difficulties in implementing any such agreements, while rights groups sound alarm that ever-tougher anti-immigration laws violate human rights.
The ministers were also due to discuss a potential deal with Egypt to prevent more people from embarking from the southern shores of the Mediterranean for Europe.
Critics have said a recent such agreement with Tunisia falls short on human rights but more potential deals are on the cards as Rome sounds alarm over Lampedusa arrivals topping those in 2022 when Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni won national elections on an anti-immigration ticket.
Italian data shows more than 133,000 sea arrivals to date in 2023, compared to nearly 181,500 in the country’s record year, 2016. Separate U.N. data shows just over 191,000 irregular arrivals this year into the EU, a bloc of 45 million people.
The EU has been pushing tougher policies to curb irregular immigration since more than a million people reached its shores in 2015, catching the bloc by surprise and overwhelming countries including Italy.
At the same time, they have been bitterly divided over how to share out the task of caring for those who make it to Europe anyway.
With Poland and Hungary leading those staunchly opposed to hosting any asylum seekers from the Middle East or Africa, there was not enough votes for the proposed “crisis mechanism” when the 27 last sought a deal in the summer. That would change if Germany voted in favour on Thursday.
“We are closer than ever before,” EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas told the ministerial talks.
He said a deal would “finally deprive the demagogues and the populists in Europe” of their argument “that we are not able to sort out our migration problem.”