Camilleri claims EU mandatory solidarity deal is not fair for Malta

Malta abstained from giving its approval to a historic pact on migration reached late on Thursday night at the European Council

Home affairs minister Byron Camilleri with EU permanent representative Marlene Bonnici
Home affairs minister Byron Camilleri with EU permanent representative Marlene Bonnici

Malta abstained from giving its approval to a historic pact on migration reached late on Thursday night at the European Council, with home affairs minister Byron Camilleri saying he remained unconvinced the deal would be fair for the tiny island-state.

Camilleri said Malta was not convinced that the pact, reached under the aegis of the Swedish presidency, would translate into “a fair and effective system that can withstand the current and future challenges” for Malta.

The agreement in the Council among home affairs ministers has yet to enter the legislative process that will need an agreement from the European Parliament, where Malta hopes to see changes to the deal.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained. But Italy, a country seen as a deal-maker due to its geographic location, chose to vote in favour, cementing the qualified majority. Only Hungary and Poland opposing the final draft.

“This agreement has not reached a good balance between responsibility and solidarity,” Camilleri said. “While existing responsibilities will increase, the proposed solidarity mechanism, while mandatory, remains flexible and, in real terms, rather weak because it does not provide the necessary guarantees that the needs of member states will be met. It is still preferable that solidarity is based on objective criteria that reflect the reality of those border countries, especially the small member states.”

The deal to revamp the bloc’s migration and asylum policy was the first breakthrough of its kind after years of divisive and bitter debates that have pitted capitals against each other.

The agreement could introduce new rules to collectively manage the reception and relocation of asylum seekers, and stem from the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a holistic proposal presented by the European Commission back in September 2020.

The pact’s most innovative element is a system of “mandatory solidarity” that will give member states three options in times of migratory pressure: accept a number of relocated asylum seekers; pay for the return of rejected applicants to their country of origin, at €20,000 per applicant which will go to a common EU fund; finance operational support, such as infrastructure and personnel.

Governments will be allowed to freely choose the option they prefer and no one will be forced to relocate migrants, a key guarantee to secure the votes from Central and Eastern Europe. The relocation number will be of 30,000 asylum seekers per year.

Last year, the EU received more than 962,000 asylum applications, the highest figure since 2016.

Byron Camilleri insisted with counterparts that Malta’s situation and vulnerabilities were different from those of other member states. “The numbers of irregular arrivals and responsibilities are a burden for every member state, but for Malta these burdens are greater due to our small size.”

Camilleri said the criterion for assistance from other member states appeared to give peace of mind to Malta. “I appreciate the difficulty in reaching a compromise whereby the concerns of each member state are addressed. Several member states have a problem with secondary movements, but in order to address this problem, a collective effort is required to reduce irregular arrivals.”

Malta’s arrivals primarily originate from Libya, and the country recently met renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who controls the Eastern part of the war-torn country where frequent departures of asylum seekers originate from. “We are constantly investing in a fruitful relationship, while a strong effort is being made so that those who do not qualify for asylum and abuse the system do not stay in our country and are returned to their country of origin,” Camilleri said.

The minister however admitted the number of irregular arrivals to Maltese shores has been low. “Malta still remains vulnerable due to its small size and geographical position,” he added.