European Union countries are “very very close” to agreeing a deal that would allow them to take tougher measures in managing irregular migration when the numbers of arrivals escalate, officials said after talks in Brussels.
The EU has struggled for years to agree on how to co-operate in dealing with migration to the union, as conflict and instability drove increasing numbers of people towards Europe and the issue became politically divisive.
The issue created acrimony as member states accused each other of allowing migrants to transit their territory, and proved toxic to the EU’s principle of free movement as some countries within the Schengen area reintroduced border checks.
However, talks to agree a new migration deal advanced significantly as justice and home affairs ministers met in Brussels on Thursday and an agreement will be announced “in the next few days”, Spain’s acting home affairs minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska Gómez told reporters.
“I think we are very very close,” he said. “The work of these last few days ... has been very important and has allowed us to be optimistic.”
On Thursday the ministers agreed to extend temporary protection status for more than four million Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the EU, granting them the right to live, work and access education in the union until March 4th, 2025. “The EU will support the Ukrainian people for as long as it takes,” Mr Grande-Marlaska said.
Diplomats representing each EU country are now set to continue negotiating on a “crisis regulation” that would set out how countries can manage irregular migration when the numbers of people arriving increase significantly.
Under a proposal being considered, EU governments could be temporarily exempt from rules that usually apply to asylum seekers, and could detain people for longer periods.
There is division, however, between EU countries that want additional flexibility in the rules and those concerned about ensuring the protection of human rights.
Germany had been blamed for holding up an agreement by seeking more human rights protections, and hopes rose that a deal could be reached early on Thursday as Berlin indicated it would be willing to back a compromise.
However, other countries, including Italy and Hungary, have pushed for an agreement that would allow for a tougher approach.
The proposed deal has drawn the criticism of NGOs, who have also hit out at a recent agreement between the EU and Tunisia that offered funding for Tunis in exchange for its co-operation in stopping boats of irregular migrants departing from the north African coast to cross the Mediterranean.
“When a crisis occurs there needs to be more solidarity, not a lowering of standards,” the International Rescue Committee’s senior vice-president for Europe Harlem Désir said in a statement.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson told reporters that so far this year the EU has received 600,000 applications for asylum, while the number of irregular crossings from North Africa to Italy had increased.
“The situation is that so far this year we have received more than 250,000 irregular arrivals to the European Union. The main increase is on the central Mediterranean route towards Italy and Lampedusa, which is really under pressure,” she told reporters.
She also predicted that a deal to reach an agreement on migration was close. “There are no main obstacles, so it is clear we will have the formal decision in a few days,” Ms Johansson said.