Following a draft deal reached in Malta in September, EU interior ministers aimed to sign an agreement to distribute migrants rescued in central Mediterranean. The deal, which according to AFP was to see Lithuanian participation, failed to get off the ground at a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
Germany, France, Italy and Malta were unable to win concrete concessions on just which countries would be willing to accept migrants rescued and brought to Italy. However, only Luxembourg, Ireland, and Portugal backed the proposal, according to AFP.
The draft deal signed by Germany, France, Italy and Malta in Valletta in September aimed to break the deadlock-negotiations between EU states following each migrant rescue at sea. Under the new agreement, participating EU states would allow migrants to apply for asylum on their territory, taking the pressure off Italy and Malta.
Read more: Lithuania mulls accepting migrants rescued in the Mediterranean under a new deal
"Lithuania welcomes the attempts by [Germany, France, Italy and Malta] to find solutions," the Lithuanian Interior Ministry told LRT.lt in a written statement, "but some confusion remains surrounding [the deal's] implementation".
"For example, whether Lithuania could choose to [host] only the persons that need international protection, or could have time for comprahensive security screenings."
German Interior Minister Seehofer said that he was "satisfied" with the result in Luxembourg, despite the fact that each rescue ship that brings migrants to Italy or Malta will still have to call a central telephone number to ascertain what country might be willing to accept the rescued migrants.
He said the system could be a model for reforming EU asylum policy, but he also conceded, "it's a tough nut to crack".
No binding quotas
Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, called on the bloc's member states to put an end to the undignified haggling that currently surrounds the issue of who is responsible for taking in migrants picked up at sea by private rescue ships.
The EU "cannot only try to find ad-hoc solutions. We need permanent mechanisms," he said, underscoring that the bloc needs to take a stand for further responsibility and solidarity.
Finland, which is currently at the helm of the European Council's rotating presidency, was also unable to orchestrate a breakthrough, as it's just as disinterested in participating in a binding quota system as Austria and Luxembourg.
Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece bemoaned the fact the four-country group that met in Malta only dealt with the problem of migrants rescued between Libya and Italy, and not those arriving in Europe in the eastern Mediterranean. Together, they called for more help from the EU.
Seehofer slaps back at critics
Thus, it remains unclear which migrants and asylum-seekers in Italy and Malta are to be distributed to other countries. France and the Netherlands say they are only willing to take in those people with a clear case for asylum or those with refugee status.
But Italy's interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, insisted that all migrants must be entered into the distribution system and that their right to asylum must be resolved in destination countries.
Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said there were roughly 2,000 people rescued by private ships between Italy and Malta over the past 14 months. Of those 2,000, some 225 have come to Germany.
In Luxembourg, Seehofer promised that number would not increase: "If people abuse the system, if hundreds become a thousand, I can simply declare an end to the emergency system. I would do that to ensure that we are not being taken advantage of by human traffickers."
Still, the delegates say their goal is not to set binding quotas. The European Commission will continue to coordinate distribution, and representatives say the telephone number that one calls to redistribute migrants from Italy will remain the same as well. Member states are also free to withdraw from the agreement at any time. "It is absolutely voluntary," emphasized Seehofer after the EU ministerial meeting.
The path to common asylum policy?
Seehofer views the distribution mechanism for the small number of migrants rescued between Italy and Malta as a kind of pilot project for a more fundamental reform of the European asylum system. "If we leave all the countries on the EU's exterior border on their own, we will never come up with a common European asylum policy," he said, warning that this could lead to a repeat of 2015, which saw a flood of migrants overwhelm the EU.
"And if we fail to come up with a common European asylum policy we run the risk of another wave of uncontrolled immigration — across the whole of Europe. We've been through that once, and I don't want to see it happen again. That is why I am fighting for a common European asylum policy."
Ports to be opened under certain conditions
Last Thursday, humanitarian sea captain Carola Rackete, who defied the orders of then-Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and docked her ship Sea-Watch 3 in the Italian port of Lampedusa with 53 rescued migrants on board, made an appeal to the EU when she addressed the European Parliament.
She implored the EU to open its ports to those rescued at sea, and to resist criminalising those, like herself, who rescue people in need of help.
Interior ministers were unable to comply with her wishes, but Italian Interior Minister Lamorgese promised she would open ports as soon as it was clear where migrants would be distributed. Distribution, she said, is to take place within one month of a ship's landing. Malta declared that it, too, would reopen its ports under those conditions.
Speaking last week in Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who is also the leader of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), the largest party in the government, declared that Italy planned to expedite deportations to 13 safe countries.
He said the deportation process will take four months in the future, rather than the two years it takes now. Di Maio said he wants to deport 100,000 rejected asylum-seekers annually. This year the country has deported only 5,200.
The EU's commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, stressed the meeting was only an initial step and "more discussions were needed", according AFP.
Another meeting at a technical level would take place in Brussels on Friday, he said.
The Lithuanian Interior Ministry told LRT.lt in a written statement that Lithuania is open to "further discussions, and after more clarity emerges surrounding solidarity mechanism implementation," a decision will be taken regarding Lithuania's participation.