VALLETTA (Reuters) - Interior ministers from five European Union countries said on Monday they had agreed a new scheme to distribute migrants saved from the Mediterranean in a deal aimed at relieving the pressure on southern EU states.
The plan will be presented to interior ministers from all 28 EU nations on Oct. 8, with officials anxious to sign up as many states as possible to the programme and resolve one of the most contentious issues the bloc has faced in recent years.
“We have started to make history, but it all depends on the support of all or most of the other EU countries in accepting to participate in the disembarkation and distribution of migrants,” said Maltese Interior Minister Michael Farrugia.
Farrugia was joined at Monday’s meeting by his counterparts from Italy, France, Germany and Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Details of the accord were not given at the end of the meeting, but Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said the idea was for rescued migrants to be sent to various EU states within four weeks of being brought ashore.
Those countries would then handle their asylum requests, welcoming them in if they met the necessary requirements and organising their repatriation if they do not.
“From today, Italy and Malta are not alone. There is a recognition that these two countries represent the gateway to Europe,” she added.
Italy and Malta have long complained that they have been left alone to deal with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in recent years looking for a better life in Europe.
European Union leaders voted for a mandatory relocation of rescued migrants in 2015 but the plan was never adopted and only a tiny handful of those picked up at sea were eventually given legal papers allowing them to go to other countries.
The influx helped fuel the rise of Italy’s far-right, anti-migrant League party, led by Matteo Salvini.
The League entered a coalition government last year and introduced laws blocking the country’s ports to migrant rescue ships, threatening the charities operating them with fines of up to a million euros ($1.1 million) if they tried to dock.
Salvini unexpectedly quit the administration last month, allowing for a less radical coalition to take shape, which has moved fast to try to forge a pan-European immigration deal to lessen tensions and deflate League rhetoric.
“The issue of immigration must no longer fuel anti-European propaganda,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week ahead of talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, where the outlines of the new plan were discussed.
Monday’s accord aims to end a situation where migrants are stranded at sea on rescue boats, sometimes for several weeks, while EU governments haggle over who should provide a safe harbour.
While around a dozen countries have, in the past, offered to take in the new arrivals, many central and eastern European states, such as Hungary and Poland, have refused to help out, and they are not expected to sign up to the new deal.
It was not clear if the EU would offer financial incentives to encourage countries to sign up to the scheme.
Previous attempts to redistribute migrants have floundered on demands from EU states that they only receive refugees fleeing war or discrimination, who are eligible for asylum — a small minority of recent boat migrants.
Lamorgese said the new scheme would cover 99 percent of those who arrived by boat. “It is ambitious, but we are starting on a sound footing,” she said.
Editing by Crispian Balmer and Kirsten Donovan