VALLETTA (Reuters) - European Union leaders meet on Malta on Friday to endorse plans they hope can forestall a new wave spring of migrants sailing for Italy from Africa, but aware that anarchy in Libya means any quick fix is a long shot.
Theresa May will also attend, despite the prime minister’s plan to start negotiations by next month to take the U.K. out of the EU — a reminder that Britain, along with France, is one of the bloc’s two main military powers and a key aid donor in Africa, and that Brussels will go on cooperating with London long after Brexit.
May also has a chance to brief her 27 peers on her visit last week to new U.S. President Donald Trump, whose backing for Brexit, doubts on free trade, barring of refugees and warmth toward Russia all raise alarm in Europe. The British leader could feel a degree of frost over her rush to embrace Trump.
A controversial agreement with Turkey last year halted an influx of refugees that had brought a million migrants into Germany via Greece. Now the EU has turned its attention to Italy, where a record 181,000 people arrived in 2016, most of them deemed to be seeking work and not in clear need of asylum from persecution.
The risks that those people run in the seas around Malta after crossing the Sahara — more than 4,500 drowned last year — will be highlighted when leaders renew vows to help Africans live better without leaving home: “This is the only way to stop people dying in the desert and at sea,” summit chair Donald Tusk said. “The only way to gain control over migration in Europe.”
Popular hostility to immigration has stoked nationalist, anti-EU movements, creating a powerful incentive for leaders facing re-election to appear to be control. That includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants a fourth term in September.
EU leaders acknowledge they cannot replicate with Libya the deal they made with Turkey to take back asylum-seekers. As the U.N. refugee agency reminded them on Thursday, Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is simply not a safe place.
“There will be no bazooka,” a senior EU official said on Thursday, ruling out — at this stage — that the bloc could get more directly involved in handling asylum seekers inside Africa.
That leaves the EU trying to bolster the shaky, U.N.-backed Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, who was in Brussels and Rome on Thursday to hear pledges of cash and help to train and strengthen his coastal and border forces.
As well as trying to disrupt smuggling gangs, the EU aims to deport more failed asylum seekers from Italy, using its cash to overcome resistance among African states to taking people back. Deportations may never occur on a grand scale, but EU officials argue that a more visible risk of being deported may dissuade would-be migrants from setting out in the first place.
“But everyone understands that this is a long shot,” one senior EU diplomat said.
Other deterrence, including publicizing the unhappy fate of many migrants, may be having an effect. In Agadez in Niger, the numbers gathering to cross the Sahara have plunged lately — though smugglers may just have altered routes.
The European leaders will turn their attention after May leaves later in the day to how to shore up popular support for the EU. They will hash out ideas for a declaration on the bloc’s future when they mark its 60th anniversary in Rome in March.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald