EU irritates North African states

The Financial Times
EU irritates North African states

Austria is to hold talks with Egypt this week in an attempt to use the last days of its EU presidency to revive the bloc’s campaign for north African countries to take in more Mediterranean Sea migrants. Financial Times reports in its article Austria presses Egypt to help curb migration across Mediterranean that Cairo has so far responded coolly to the bloc’s attempts to persuade it to share the load and broaden coastal patrols to counter people-smuggling along the wider north African coast. 

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian president, is due to meet Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor, in the Austrian capital in a visit that includes a gathering of African and European leaders on economic co-operation. The Africa-Europe forum is the last big set-piece event of Vienna’s rotating six-month EU presidency, during which managing migration has been a main focus.

Mr Kurz and Donald Tusk, European Council president, have been wooing Mr Sisi as part of an effort to bridge European divisions over migration by preventing irregular migrants from arriving in the bloc. 

In a sign of continuing tensions on the issue in Europe, police on Sunday fired tear gas and water cannon at demonstrators outside the EU headquarters in Brussels after about 5,000 people marched against a UN migration pact.

“We would like to co-operate with countries so they stop people from leaving irregularly in the first place,” said one EU diplomat. “That's where Egypt comes in, because it has been extremely effective [in its own waters] in stopping people from leaving. It has shown that it is possible to secure a long shoreline — and others could emulate it.” 

Backers of the Egypt plan hope Mr Sisi will use his Vienna visit to enlarge on what he is prepared to offer and what he wants in return.

Cairo has yet to agree to European proposals for it to take part in regional joint sea patrols to rescue migrants and potentially take them back to Egypt, European diplomats said.

Egypt is understood to be worried that those rescued could cause security problems and end up staying for years. Repatriation of migrants to their home countries is often difficult because they have lost, destroyed or never had documentation. Mr Sisi and Mr Kurz spoke by phone last week before their Vienna meeting.

But the EU overtures to Mr Sisi have met scepticism from some diplomats, who note Cairo is unwilling to offer more help, given the minimal migrant flows from Egypt to the bloc. They also fear that Cairo would put a heavy price tag on any increased co-operation, citing the example of the €6bn payment to Turkey agreed under a 2016 deal for Ankara to take back migrants who travelled from its territory to the Greek islands. 

“We never understood in the first place why they were so gung-ho about Egypt,” said one European diplomat. “Why wake a sleeping dog for all the wrong reasons?” 

The move to co-operate more closely with Mr Sisi has also raised human rights concerns as the former general, who took power after a 2013 coup, cracks down ever harder on dissent. 

Critics also say the EU appeared presumptuous — and irritated north African states — by announcing its plans in June to send rescued migrants to countries outside the bloc without consulting those countries first. 

“When you follow the debate in Europe, you get the sense that European leaders often forget that other countries have their own priorities,” said Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe for Refugees International, a campaign group. 

The EU has been locked for years in internal conflict over how to deal with migration, even though arrival numbers this year have been a fraction of the almost 2.5m asylum seekers that sought refuge in the bloc in 2015-16. EU leaders again failed to agree on reform of the bloc’s asylum system at a summit last week, after which they said “intensified” co-operation with countries of migrant origin and transit should be “continued, further developed and fully implemented”. 

Opponents of the Sisi plan say a better model would be the more modest co-operation with Morocco, where the EU is giving money to improve border security and buy equipment such as night-vision goggles. EU countries are also hoping to put migration on the agenda at February’s first-ever summit with the Arab League, whose 22 members include the five north African coastal states, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.