PARIS • French President Emmanuel Macron (picture) said he wants the European Union (EU) to establish “closed centers” in countries such as Italy and Greece to swiftly determine the status of migrants arriving by sea, with genuine asylum seekers shared out among EU members and so-called economic migrants sent home.
Macron made the proposal at a Saturday meeting in Paris with Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez a day ahead of a meeting of about 15 European leaders in Brussels to tackle an issue that caused deep splits within the EU.
“National solutions can flatter some egos, but they’ll bring less-than-desirable results,” Macron said, clearly referring to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who in recent weeks has played brinkmanship with other EU countries by refusing to accept humanitarian ships carrying migrants to Italian ports. “We must keep our calm and not yield to the extremes.”
At the same time, Macron threatened eastern European countries that have refused to take part in previous rounds of accepting refugees, saying they can’t continue to count on European aid if they don’t change their policies. Sunday’s informal meeting comes before what promises to be a fractious summit of all 28 EU members on Thursday and Friday.
About 300,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores since the start of 2016, and countries such as France and Austria have reimposed border controls to prevent them reaching richer countries in northern Europe. Salvini, part of a populist government elected in March after a campaign where migration was a central issue, has prevented humanitarian ships from docking in Italy, even as the navy has continued to carry out its own rescue operations and bring the survivors to Italian ports.
While Macron has criticised Italy for rejecting boats, France hasn’t offered to take them. Salvini called the French president “arrogant” in a statement sent by his spokesperson, and invited him to “show generosity by opening French ports”.
Spain agreed to take in more than 600 migrants from one humanitarian boat recently refused by Italy, and Sanchez said his government is in talks with France and Italy about other boats Salvini said he won’t accept.
“I can guarantee that the position the Spanish government will maintain this Sunday and next Thursday and Friday is to give a European perspective to this migration issue,” Sanchez said yesterday. “The Spanish government will put special emphasis on bilateral cooperation, on cooperation and dialogue with origin and transit countries.”
Macron indicated he doesn’t intend to loosen controls at the theoretically open border with Italy. “If it’s an economic migrant who doesn’t face danger in his country, then it’s not France’s responsibility to take him, nor Spain’s,” Macron said.
Macron said the EU’s migration policy required closer cooperation with the countries migrant came from, beefing up the EU’s Frontex border operations, and an EU-run system to sort through the people who do arrive. He proposed a series of centers in the EU countries where the migrants disembark, where they could be held while their cases were processed.
“We must respect humanitarian law and that says that a boat in difficulty must be accepted by the closest safe port,” Macron said. “But then we need a European way to quickly examine asylum claims and quickly send back those that don’t belong.”
A similar system of so-called “hotspots” were used in Greece when about a million refugees started arriving in 2015. But almost all of them were fleeing the Syrian civil war and had a high chance of receiving refugee status.
The largest group of migrants arriving in Italy now is from Tunisia, a country that isn’t deemed dangerous enough to justify refugee status, though it’s facing economic difficulties — Bloomberg