The leaders of nine Mediterranean and southern European countries, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, have met in Malta for talks focusing on migration.
The summit comes on Friday, a day after the UN refugee organisation said more than 2,500 migrants had perished or disappeared attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year – substantially more than at the same point in 2022.
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But it also comes as EU interior ministers finally made headway on Thursday on new rules for how the bloc handles asylum seekers and irregular migrants, with a deal expected in the coming days.
Long in the works, there was new impetus to reach a deal after a sharp rise in asylum seekers landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month.
Meloni’s far-right coalition government, elected on an anti-migration ticket, has clashed with both France and Germany as she presses other EU countries to share the burden. So far this year, the number of arrivals at Lampedusa has already passed 133,000.
But Meloni and Macron have sought to ease tensions in recent days and met on Tuesday in Rome on the sidelines of the state funeral for ex-Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
“There is a shared vision of the management of the migration question between France and Italy,” a French presidential source said.
Paris is hoping Friday’s so-called Med9 summit, attended by the leaders of Malta, France, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, will offer a “clear message” that migration requires a response at the European level, the source said.
The EU is poised to agree a revamped Pact on Migration and Asylum, which will seek to relieve pressure on frontline countries such as Italy and Greece by relocating some arrivals to other EU states.
Those countries opposed to hosting asylum seekers – Poland and Hungary among them – would be required to pay the ones that do take migrants in.
Disagreements within the 27-nation bloc over the proposed revisions have now largely been overcome, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday after the interior ministers’ meeting.
A formal agreement is expected “in a few days”, she said.
Both Meloni and Macron also want to prevent boats departing from North Africa by working more closely with Tunisia, despite questions over the country’s human rights standards and treatment of migrants.
The European Commission said last week it was set to release the first instalment of funds to Tunisia – one of the main launching points for boats – under a plan to bolster its coastguard and tackle traffickers.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi met with his Tunisian and Libyan counterparts in Sicily on Thursday for talks on stopping the boats, the ministry said.
Rome and Paris are also keen to intensify EU controls at sea.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is at the Malta summit, included the possible expansion of naval missions in the Mediterranean in a 10-point action plan this month in Lampedusa.
There are fears arrivals could spiral further if instability in the Sahel affects North African countries.
The Med9 summit, which brings together Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, is expected to call for greater investment by the bloc in the so-called Southern Neighbourhood.
Extra funding may be earmarked for countries across the Mediterranean’s southern shore in the review of the EU’s 2021-2027 long-term budget, a European diplomatic source told the AFP news agency.
The leaders will also discuss regional challenges posed by natural disasters following a devastating earthquake in Morocco, a flood disaster in Libya, and extreme weather events in Southern Europe.