Extraordinary meeting of interior ministers: the migrant dossier on the table The crisis between Italy and France turns the spotlight on the drama of illegal immigration

Legal - December 12, 2022

We will adopt a humane and humanitarian approach. Saving lives at sea is not an option. And those countries that fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to count on the solidarity of the whole European Union… Everyone must step up and take responsibility.” This is how the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke during her State of the Union address in 2020, when the New Pact on Migration and Asylum was presented. Overcoming the Dublin Treaty and finding a synthesis for the management of migration flows is one of the most heated challenges that have animated the European Union in recent years. The Treaty, signed in 1990 and already amended in 2003 and 2013, regulates the matter of reception and the system of asylum claims within the European Union. The Treaty stipulates that the state of first arrival must take care of the migrant in full, including offering support in filling out asylum applications. Clearly, the states that suffer most are those in the south, whose borders coincide with the external borders of the European Union. It is Italy and Greece, in fact, that receive the majority of migrants arriving from North Africa and Turkey, making the management of thousands of people each year very burdensome.

Two years after President Ursula Von der Leyen’s speech and the presentation of the new plan, little or nothing seems to have changed and the much hoped-for European solidarity is struggling to become a reality. Even the system of relocations seems cumbersome and only a few dozen migrants arrived in Italy who, for example, have been taken in by France and Germany.  Tensions between states on the migrant issue are now the order of the day.

On 9 November, the Meloni government had denied entry to Italian ports to the ship Ocean Viking, of the NGO Sos Mediterranée, arguing that Italy was very tried by the continuous illegal landings and unable to manage, alone, all the migratory flow coming from the central Mediterranean. On 11 November, France had granted ‘exceptionally’ the berth in the port of Toulon, but accused Italy of unacceptable behaviour, threatening to block the agreement for the redistribution of 3500 migrants and inviting other member states, starting with Germany, to do the same.  “I think it is worth putting two numbers together: the Ong ship Ocean Viking that docks in France today is the first ship of an NGO that has ever docked in France with 230 migrants. This has generated a very harsh reaction against Italy, which has let in almost 90,000 migrants,’ Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told a press conference. For President Meloni, the migration problem stems, above all, from the lack of solidarity within the EU and the absence of a common strategy. “It is not written in any agreement that Italy should be the only port of disembarkation“, said the Italian Prime Minister, calling for a common solution involving the defence of the EU’s external borders, the blocking of departures and the opening of hotspots in Africa to first assess requests for entry into member states. The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, heard by journalists about the increase in landings in Italy, seems to have agreed with the position expressed by the Meloni government. Johansson, in fact, stated that crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe is a dangerous, often deadly undertaking and that, therefore, since the EU’s common goal is to save lives, the best solution is to avoid departures.

The very harsh tone of the exchange between Italy and France alarmed the EU executive. Therefore, an extraordinary Council of Interior Ministers was promptly convened and European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is coordinating the work on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, called for a quick solution to the tensions generated by the management of migrants between member states.

To get a good understanding of the scale of the migration phenomenon, let us cite the data reported by FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which among other things has the task of helping EU Member States and Schengen-zone associated countries in the management of their external borders, from which we can see that from January to October 2022 there were 281,000 irregular entries. We can see, therefore, an increase of 77% compared to the same period last year, the highest figure since 2016. The passage through the Western Balkans continues to be the most active route, with more than 22,300 entries recorded in October, which is about three times as many as last year’s figures. The number of irregular landings also increased in the central Mediterranean, about 85,000, an increase of 59%.

The extraordinary Council of Interior Ministers was therefore held in Brussels on 25 November. The objective of all the participants is to establish a framework of common rules at European level, which private entities, such as the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea, will also have to abide by; to dialogue with the countries of origin and transit to prevent departures and, at the same time, to foster development cooperation processes; and to strengthen repatriation mechanisms. “There is a lot of satisfaction. There was the presentation of the plan proposed by the EU commission, there were convergent discussions. The plan retraces what Italy had always said, that is, a strong action by Europe both to improve support to the countries of origin and transit of migratory flows and to develop containment of departures and improve returns. We also addressed the issue of sharing greater coordination of SAR mechanisms in the Mediterranean and beyond as soon as possible,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on the sidelines of the meeting.

Also satisfied with the outcome of the meeting was European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who said that the ministers who attended were ready to support the plan proposed by the EC. Also, on the agenda of the EU executive would be the resumption of voluntary relocations. Vice-President Schinas also reiterated the need to protect the EU’s external borders by rejecting those who are not entitled to international protection. “Europe will always remain an asylum destination for those fleeing war and persecution“, said the Vice-President, adding, however, that “at the same time in order to have a European migration policy we must fight the traffickers“. The Vice President also spoke on the issue of operations conducted in the Mediterranean by NGOs, arguing that it is necessary to structure the search and rescue system at sea, while also respecting the legislation of member states.

Spain, represented by Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, expressed its opposition to the idea of creating hotspots in Africa, believing that this proposal could lead to a violation of the international law of the sea and international humanitarian law.

Also, on the table of the interior ministers was the war in Ukraine. As Vit Rakusan, Minister of the Czech Republic, which holds the presidency of the European Union, pointed out, Russian aggression is still ongoing and, therefore, it is necessary to be prepared for the arrival of new refugees, considering that the winter will be very harsh and that many cities are without water, light and heating. For Rakusan, the possible solution to the complex management of migratory flows could lie in identifying migrants and assessing asylum claims in third countries. The topic could be dealt with at the Interior Ministers’ meeting scheduled as early as 8 December.

The crisis between Italy and France seems to have had the merit of bringing back to the EU’s attention the need to seek concrete common solutions to combat illegal immigration. Defending Italian, Greek, Spanish, Maltese borders means defending Europe’s external borders. Certainly, a more cohesive European Union, ready to give answers on common problems, is what European citizens want.