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EU Leaders Agree Plan To Curb Mass Migration From Libya

  • RFE/RL

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the press as she arrives for a summit of EU heads of state or government in Valletta on February 3.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the press as she arrives for a summit of EU heads of state or government in Valletta on February 3.

European Union leaders meeting in Malta have agreed on new steps to curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.

The February 3 summit in the island nation also aimed at shoring up unity in the face of the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

The meeting was shadowed by concerns about relations with the United States under President Donald Trump, who French President Francois Hollande said has put "unacceptable" pressure on the EU.

The leaders of the 28 EU nations endorsed a plan to stem mass migration from Libya that includes more funding for the country's UN-backed government, help in fighting smuggling gangs, and improving conditions for migrants on the ground.

Concrete projects include training, equipment, and support for the Libyan coastguard to stop boats heading to Italy, helping the country better protect its borders, upgrading camps for migrants in Libya, and supporting voluntary repatriation for those willing to return to their countries of origin.

The bloc vowed to respect human rights and international law in dealing with migration, saying it would seek close engagement with UN refugee and migration agencies.

The EU says that most of the 181,000 people who came via Libya in 2016 were illegal economic migrants, unlike the asylum seekers arriving in Greece from Syria.

Advocates for migrants have decried inhumane camp conditions in the largely lawless North African country and raised concern that they could be endangered if repatriated to their homelands.

During the summit in Malta's capital, Valetta, 27 heads of state and government were also holding evening talks focusing on the bloc's future after Britain's exit from the European Union -- known as Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May attended the summit but was not expected to participate in Brexit-related talks.

May did brief her counterparts over lunch on her visit last week with Trump, who has caused concern in Europe by voicing strong approval for Brexit and questioning the effectiveness of the NATO military alliance.

The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper said May urged other leaders "to work patiently and constructively" with the United States.

But the report added they rebuffed her efforts to act as a liaison between Trump and Europe.

The Guardian said a scheduled meeting between May and Merkel was called off. A Downing Street source denied it was a snub, insisting they had covered everything they wanted during an informal "walkabout," the report added.

On January 31, European Council President Donald Tusk urged unity in dealing with challenges he said are "more dangerous than ever before" in the history of the bloc and said "worrying declarations" by Trump were part of a welter of external threats that also included an assertive China, an aggressive Russia, and "terror and anarchy in the Middle East and in Africa, with radical Islam playing a major role."

Asked in Malta if he felt threatened by Trump, Tusk said, "No, I don't feel threatened, but think there is room for explanations."

"Sometimes, I have an impression that the new administration does not know the EU in detail -- but in Europe, details matter," he added.

Upon arrival at the summit, Hollande criticized what he said was pressure on the EU from Trump, who has predicted a breakup of the bloc.

"It is unacceptable that there should be, through a certain number of statements by the president of the United States, pressure on what Europe should or should not be," Hollande told reporters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the best way for the EU to deal with the new U.S. administration is to push forward with its own plans.

"I [have] already said that Europe has its destiny in its own hands," Merkel told reporters as she arrived in Valletta.

Trump has faced criticism inside and outside the United States for suspending the entire U.S. refugee program for 120 days, indefinitely shutting the door on Syrian refugees, and barring citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen -- from entering the United States for 90 days.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern suggested that U.S. foreign policy had contributed to immigration.

"America has a shared responsibility for the flow of migrants through the way military intervention was carried out," he said, without elaborating.

Still, Trump did have at least one defender. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the EU should focus on its own matters instead of criticizing Trump's border policies.

"I am watching with surprise the neurotic European reactions to the decision of the United States," Orban said. "The United States is not part of the European Union. It's an independent state -- and as an independent state, it has the right to define its border policy, its foreign policy, and its migrant policy."

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP
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