LUXEMBOURG Slovakia will focus on putting a new European Union border guard to work and streamlining deportations of migrants with no case for asylum when it takes over the bloc's presidency for the first time from July, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak said.
Kalinak said Bratislava would also put forward "compromise" proposals on the disputed reform of EU asylum rules that pits Berlin and Brussels against eastern states in the bloc.
"Effectively guarding Europe's external borders is the most important point to be successful in all migration issues," Kalinak told Reuters three weeks before he will start chairing meetings of the EU's interior ministers who deal with migration.
The EU is creating a joint Border and Coast Guard to prevent an uncontrolled influx of people by deploying it where the bloc's external frontier gets overwhelmed. The aim is to make it operational swiftly but that is likely to take weeks or several months and will be overseen by Slovakia's six-month presidency.
How to return failed asylum seekers or economic migrants to their home countries is the other priority. "This is one of the main points discouraging migrants from moving from their homes to Europe," Kalinak said.
EU states are at loggerheads over how to manage migration after 1.3 million refugees and migrants reached the bloc last year. Germany, Sweden and Austria took in most of the people and have voiced frustration with poorer EU states in the east, including Slovakia, who have refused to admit any.
Slovakia is mounting a legal challenge to an EU decision to spread out 120,000 asylum seekers, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, around the bloc. The stand-off with Brussels deepened in May when Prime Minister Robert Fico said Islam had no place in Slovakia.
Some EU diplomats have voiced concerns that Bratislava will not leave its national agenda behind when it takes over the presidency of the 28-member bloc.
But Kalinak dismissed that, echoing comments by Fico last week by saying: "We will be an honest broker. Our task is to find compromises ... Being underestimated is a very good position to be in. We can surprise."
Kalinak said he would push forward Brussels' proposals to make development aid and trade ties with African states conditional on migration as the bloc worries a Mediterranean route to Italy would become the main one now after a deal with Turkey cut arrivals to Greece to a trickle.
Slovakia will also put forward proposals on the reform of the bloc's asylum system, which has further divided EU states, Kalinak said, acknowledging that a compromise "won't be easy".
Prospective refugees are not allowed to choose the country they want to live in, but that rule only works on paper as people go to wealthier states or where they have relatives.
"We can take part in relocation but it's an empty gesture, in 24 hours they will have moved from Slovakia," Kalinak said.
Since August 2015, he said Slovakia had offered temporary shelter to more than 1,200 people who filed for asylum in neighboring Austria, which was unable to accommodate them.
Bratislava wants to add this mechanism to the broader reform of EU asylum rules.
"The asylum seekers were satisfied because their application was filed with the destination country. But this country at the moment has no possibility to deal with the application ... so temporarily they can stay in another country," he said.
"The relocation mechanism is not working ... At the end of the day we would be able to accommodate the same number of people – but in a different system."
The EU relocation plan was due to cover 160,000 people but only 2,195 were moved from Greece and Italy so far.
Bratislava also wants to grant visa-free access to Europe's free-travel Schengen zone to former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine, where Kiev is struggling with a Russia-backed rebellion in the east.
No decision was made on that at the meeting of EU home affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Friday after opposition from Germany, France and Italy. Kiev and Tbilisi could now win the privilege in the autumn.
(Editing by Alison Williams)