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The Malta Declaration by the European Council on the External Aspects of Migration: addressing the Central Mediterranean route

Migration was a priority issue at the informal summit of EU leaders in Valletta, which took place in the historic parliament building, Fort Elmo, on 3 February 2017, just over a month since Malta assumed the Presidency of the Council of the EU, on 1 January 2017. The agenda for the summit was divided equally between a discussion of the future EU27 after Brexit and a discussion on the urgent issue of migratory flows into the EU. Plans were also discussed for the celebration of 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties on 25 March 2017, which will conclude the so-called Bratislava Process of reflections on the future of Europe after Brexit.

A tweet from European Council President Donald Tusk read: 
“Constructive discussion at #MaltaSummit on future of EU27, importance of unity and preparation of the Rome Summit

In policy terms, the External Aspects of Migration was the theme of the first half of the informal summit. The Central Mediterranean is the area most affected by migratory flows and over 181,000 migrants used this route to cross from Libya to the EU in 2016. The Valletta Summit brought EU leaders together to discuss new measures to strengthen cooperation with Libya and to close the central Mediterranean migration route. Following on from the success of the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement, which led to a 97% drop in arrivals into the EU along the eastern Mediterranean route, the focus of EU leaders in Malta was on closing the central Mediterranean route.



From Mare Nostrum to Triton

The sea route from Libya to the European Union has long been the preferred route for refugees fleeing deteriorating conditions in North Africa. In 2008, nearly 40,000 migrants tried to enter the EU from Libya, arriving at the coasts of Lampedusa and Malta, and the number has risen exponentially to 181,000 in 2016. In response to rising demand, lucrative smuggling networks which facilitate crossings into the EU have emerged in Libya. In return for large sums of money, smugglers place migrants onto often unseaworthy fishing boats, unequipped to deal with the Mediterranean. This practice resulted in significant losses of life in 2014 and 2015.

Despite the need for large scale search and rescue operations, the Italian Navy’s emergency operation, Mare Nostrum, which saved 350,000 lives, was shut down in 2014, a year after its inception. Operation Triton began shortly after and is conducted by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Operation Triton supports Italy with border control, surveillance and search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean. On numerous occasions, Frontex coordinated vessels and aircrafts have also been redirected by the Italian Coast Guard to assist migrants in distress in areas far away from the operational area of Triton. In May 2015, the European Commission agreed to add resources to patrol the central Mediterranean and expand the operational area of Operation Triton to the level of the defunct Operation Mare Nostrum.


Managing Flows, Saving Lives

On 25 January 2017, the European Commission and the High Representative, Frederica Mogherini developed a blueprint on how to better manage migration and save lives in the Mediterranean. In the Malta Declaration, the European Council outlined their determination to significantly reduce migratory flows along the Central Mediterranean route and disrupt the business model of smugglers and human traffickers by increasing their cooperation with Libya and with its neighboring countries.

At the Valletta Summit, the European Council reinforced its commitment to supporting Libya’s interim government, the Government of National Accord, which has been backed by the United Nations. It was agreed that the EU and its Member States will step up cooperation with Libya by providing a fund of €200 million designed to make the option of illegal migration less attractive to economic migrants. First, by disrupting the smugglers operations in current routes and alternative routes; second by stepping up assisted voluntary returns of migrants together with the UNHCR and IOM to Libya, while ensuring that adequate reception capacities and conditions are provided in Libya for migrants; third, the commitment to improve the economic situation of host communities and enhancing the resilience of coastal communities in Libya;  finally, a commitment was made to provide training and support to the Libyan national coast guard and enhance Libya’s border management capacity at its land borders.

The Malta Declaration came a day after the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, signed a bilateral accord with Fayez al-Serraj, Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord, which states that Italy will provide financial assistance to the Government of National Accord to help disrupt the people smugglers’ business model. As a further signal of new cooperation between Italy and Libya, the Italian embassy in Tripoli was reopened.



The three recent statements, the Malta Declaration, the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap, on strengthening the EU’s external borders and the EU-Turkey Statement on stemming migrant flows from the East, if successfully implemented, suggest that the EU will have made significant progress in preventing waves of illegal migrants from arriving in Europe, as in recent years. The relative ease and speed with which this plan was agreed indicates the importance that the Member States place on strengthening the EU’s external borders and finding a sustainable solution to control inward migration. However, it will also further underline the Union’s shift towards a more pragmatic and political, rather than ideological, approach to policy-making with respect to the migrant crisis.

A number of NGO’s have criticized the agreement, such as Arjan Hehenkamp, Director of Operations for Medicines Sans Frontiers, who said: “[…] by claiming to save lives on the Mediterranean and pushing people back into hellish detention centres which are in Libya, they are not solving the crisis, they are most likely exacerbating one”.

However, the Conclusions on Libya, which were adopted by the European Council at its meeting on 6 February 2017, highlighted the EU leaders’ awareness of and concerns about the humanitarian situation in Libya, condemned human rights violations against migrants in Libya, and called for the enhanced protection of migrants and the improvement of detention centres and reception facilitates. The positive outcome of the summit was welcomed, in particular its focus on addressing the issue of migration in a humanitarian and practical way. While the issue of migration is seen by some as a threat to the fabric of European integration, in a year when the celebration of its foundation Treaties and when three key member states face important elections, it is also an issue which challenges to Europeans to stand up for the liberal values the EU upholds.


Image © 2017 olympiada