France and Spain combined yesterday to derail plans to reduce migration into Europe by setting up EU asylum-processing camps in north Africa.
Two days of informal talks in Florence among interior ministers of the five biggest EU nations ended in deadlock and a firm and public rejection of the idea from Paris.
The response is a blow to Italy and Germany who had pushed the idea as a method of combating the flow of migrants from Libya to the Italian coast. The initiative was also backed by the UK, which had put forward similar ideas last year, only to be rebuffed.
With human rights groups hostile to the initiative, the revived Italian-German plans met a similar fate yesterday. The French Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said after the meeting at a Florentine villa that “for France, it’s out of the question to accept transit camps or shelters of any kind”. He added: “It is not for Europe to take this issue forward.”
Spain’s Interior Minister, Jose Antonio Alonso, also expressed opposition, saying the camps would not give humanitarian guarantees.
Critics say that refugee centres in countries such as Libya would not be able to guarantee the legal or human rights standards expected in Western Europe. They also argue that they may attract illegal immigrants and people-traffickers in the same way as the Sangatte camp in Calais did.
However, the German Interior Minister, Otto Schily, said that setting up the camps would mean migrants would not need to embark on a “life-endangering trip across the Mediterranean, but would have the possibility of making such an application outside the borders of the European Union”.
The three governments that back the idea must now decide whether to shelve it, to try to win the backing of a total of eight governments and proceed as a group of EU nations, or whether to pursue it outside an EU framework.
The opposition of France is a significant blow since the government in Paris will be unwilling to see any new area of European co-operation proceed without it.
In the wake of yesterday’s disagreement, Italy’s Interior Minister Giuseppe, Pisanu, made only a general call for the EU to “help transit countries which agree [to co-operate] to control their borders and improve their capacity to repatriate illegal immigrants”.
Instead, he focused on the backing given by the five interior ministers to plans to introduce digital fingerprinting for EU passports from as early as 2006.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, attended yesterday’s meeting but left early and without speaking at the press conference. A Home Office spokesman said there was “a pressing need to tackle flows of illegal immigration at source, working with countries of origin and transit.
“We believe that the focus should be on working with third counties to strengthen their capacity for dealing with migration management.”
The issue of immigration has been highly sensitive in Rome because of the steady flow of people crossing from Libya aiming for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Each year, tens of thousands make the dangerous crossing often in rickety boats or rubber dinghies. Italy has been criticised for a new policy of quickly repatriating migrants who arrive from Libya—a tactic human rights groups say denies people the chance to apply for asylum.
With the onset of autumn, more difficult sailing conditions and the arrival of fewer migrants, the political temperature has lowered in Italy.
The European Commission has already agreed to help fund a less controversial project, backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, designed to help African countries improve their asylum and immigration procedures.