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Southern EU nations call for growth, burden-sharing on migration

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (right), French President Francois Hollande (centre) and Italian Prime Minister Matteos Renzi pose for a photo during the EU MED Mediterranean Economies Summit in Athens on September 9 2016 © AFP / Aris Messinis

Athens, Greece, Sep 9 – Southern EU leaders on Friday called for revised asylum rules to fight the ongoing migration crisis, and appealed for unity ahead of a showdown on the post-Brexit future of the bloc.

A joint declaration signed by France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Malta and host Greece said the European Union should double the funding for strategic investment and for additional European experts to help the front-line states tackle migration.

It also stressed the need to revise existing cross-nation EU asylum rules.

Under the so-called Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers may be sent back to their first country of arrival in the EU to have their application processed there.

The mostly centre-left or left-leaning leaders were also seeking to close ranks ahead of an expected clash with EU hardliners at a summit next week in Bratislava to chart the union’s post-Brexit future — even as they called for unity.

“We are not, nor do we wish to be, another grouping, another initiative to divide Europe. We wish to be an initiative for dialogue to better unite Europe,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

The 27 EU leaders — the entire bloc, except Britain — will gather on September 16 to discuss the fallout from the British vote in June to quit the EU.

Cypriot civilian security officers guide young Syrian migrants at the Kokkinotrimithia refugee camp, west of the Cypriot capital Nicosia © AFP/File / Iakovos Hatzistavrou

“At such a decisive moment, with populists and extremists hoping to see Europe breaking up, it was important to send a message of unity,” French President Francois Hollande said in remarks after the four-hour conclave.

“Europe is a soft power, and it can forge a real identity,” added Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, referring to the alternative use of economic and cultural influence available to the bloc.

A showdown is expected in Bratislava, where the so-called Visegrad group — made up of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland — has demanded a tougher stance on migration.

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The Visegrad four have already held their own meeting to present a united front.

Friday’s gathering also came less than two weeks after rescuers saved a one-day record of 6,500 migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Missing at the talks was Spain’s acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who stayed at home amid desperate efforts in Madrid to form a coalition government.

German reactions to the meeting — which has been derisively termed ‘Club Med’ — were dismissive.

“When socialist party leaders meet nothing terribly intelligent comes out of it most of the time,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters.

Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party, the largest in the European Parliament, was even more scathing.

– ‘Little games’ –

“Alexis Tsipras is once again playing the little games he knows so well,” Weber said, an apparent reference to the leftist leader’s attempts to build an anti-austerity alliance last year.

Refugees protest in central Athens, calling for a faster relocation program and the opening of borders © AFP/File / Louisa Gouliamaki

“What Europe needs right now is a message of unity, not new efforts to divide it,” he added.

But Renzi, who has often challenged fiscal orthodoxy, stressed Friday that “we are at a phase where Europe cannot go on being just about rules and technicalities.”

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A day earlier, Tsipras had also hit out at Germany’s perceived domination of the EU.

“We must collectively agree if we are a European Union or a German Union,” he told French daily Le Monde.

Budget disagreements notwithstanding, Berlin has proven very sympathetic to the southern countries on migration.

Migrants being rescued from a dinghy off the Libyan coast in the international waters between Malta and Libya © Italian Red Cross/AFP/File

More than 850,000 people — most of them fleeing conflict in war-ravaged Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — arrived on the Greek islands last year alone after risking their lives in unseaworthy boats and dinghies.

“We need to reach a European asylum system that is realistic and shows solidarity, instead of shifting the burden to entry states,” Greece’s junior foreign minister for European affairs, Nikos Xydakis, said in an interview with AFP.

Human Rights Watch called on Greece Friday to end the detention of migrant and refugee children, pointing to “cramped and filthy conditions.”

Greek authorities registered more than 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and other migrant children who arrived in Greece in the first seven months of this year, HRW said.


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