EU to hold talks with north Africans to curb migration

EU has previously sealed cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya that have sharply cut migration, but wants to expand work with all north African countries.

SALZBURG - EU leaders called Thursday for more intense talks with Egypt and other North African countries to take further steps against illegal migration to Europe, particularly by fighting those who smuggle and traffic them.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said leaders meeting in the Austrian city of Salzburg backed the plan and noted that Egypt, at least, is "ready to intensify talks with the European Union".

"I believe that this will be an important further step in the fight against illegal migration, but above all also in the fight against the business of traffickers," Kurz told reporters.

Egypt's foreign ministry confirmed Thursday it has proposed hosting a joint summit of EU and Arab leaders to tackle a range of issues, including migration.

EU sources said the summit could be held in February. The Cairo-based Arab League includes North African countries Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as well as those in the Middle East and Gulf.

The EU has previously struck cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya that helped to cut migration to Europe sharply since a 2015 peak, but the bloc wants to expand work with all north African countries.

The 28-nation bloc is increasingly focusing on less controversial plans to bolster its external borders as sharp divisions persist over redistributing asylum seekers who make it to Europe.

Summit host Kurz said the leaders proposed during an opening dinner on Wednesday "that talks be opened with Egypt but also with other North African states."

"This proposal has been supported by all," Kurz added.

Kurz, whose country holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, said he and Donald Tusk, the European Council president who chairs summits, will now reach out to the north African countries.

He said the signs were encouraging from Egypt, which EU officials said Kurz and Tusk visited on Sunday to discuss deeper cooperation.

Following his return to Brussels, Tusk called for a summit of EU and Arab League leaders.

Migration 'political crisis'

Kurz said Egypt has been "efficient" in the last two years in preventing boats from leaving its shores or forcing them back when they did.

EU sources told reporters that Egypt has set an example in fighting traffickers and smugglers, which could be followed by other North African countries.

They said Tusk will meet for more talks on fighting illegal migration with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.

Tusk called the informal summit in a bid to defuse simmering tensions over migration.

Since the summer, Italy has repeatedly turned away rescue ships carrying hundreds of African migrants to force other EU member countries to share responsibility for them.

The migrants were finally relocated to member states and non-member Albania on an ad-hoc basis, but EU countries have so far found an overall solution elusive.

They have yet to work out ways to implement proposals agreed at a June summit to set up centres in Europe and North Africa to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants who could be deported.

EU sources said the idea would not be to set up a disembarkation centre in Egypt, which Cairo is on record as opposing. No other North African country has agreed to host such a centre.

Kurz, whose government takes a harder line on migration, said more EU leaders realise that tougher external borders rather than "sharing refugees" were the solution.

The EU is still confronted with the refusal of Hungary and other former communist eastern countries to admit migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.

But Italian Prime Minister Paolo Conte said frontline countries like Italy have not given up on a scheme to redistribute the asylum seekers who arrive on their shores among other bloc members.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel argued that migration is now only a "political crisis," unlike in 2015 when Europe faced a real logistical and humanitarian emergency with the biggest movement of asylum seekers since World War II.

'Just build a wall'

Meanwhile Spain's foreign minister revealed that US President Donald Trump suggested building a wall along the Sahara desert to stem the arrival of migrants, as he plans to do on the Mexican border.

"Closing ports is not a solution, and neither is building a wall along the Sahara like President Trump suggested to me recently," Josep Borrell told a lunchtime gathering on Tuesday, according to a video released by Spanish media.

"'Just build a wall that borders the Sahara'," he quoted Trump as telling him.

"'But do you know how big the Sahara is?'," the minister responded.

According to Borrell’s recollection, Trump brushed off his scepticism by saying “the Sahara border can’t be bigger than our border with Mexico."

The border between the United States and Mexico is roughly 3,000 kilometres long, while the Sahara is roughly 5000 kilometres long, spanning all of northern Africa from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west

The desert spreads over parts of 11 countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, Mali, Mauritania, Eritrea, Chad and Niger.

Spain is at the frontline of the migration issue, having overtaken Italy to become the number one point of entry for migrants coming to Europe by sea or by land from Africa.

Many of these cross the Sahara to Morocco and on to Spain across the Mediterranean or over two high fences into the Spanish overseas territories of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco.

Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border could cost up to $20 billion (17 billion euros) according to some estimates.