European leaders have offered African countries almost €2bn (£1.4bn) in return for agreeing to the deportation of unwanted migrants from Europe, in their latest attempt to get to grips with the mass movement of people that is destabilising European politics.
A two-day summit in Malta of more than 60 European and African leaders has ended with agreement on the establishment of a €1.8bn “trust fund” that could double to €3.6bn, earmarked for efforts to tackle the EU’s biggest ever migration crisis.
African leaders complained that the amount of money was inadequate and "just a start.", following two days of fierce negotiations that continued for eight hours until five in the morning on Thursday. The various parties eventually agreed on a compromise package described by participants as the "lowest common denominator."
"There was very little trust between the sides,” diplomats reported. “There was a lot of tension over the way that the EU handled this."
Even if implemented, the accords will have little quick, appreciable impact on the current crisis. The summit was called six months ago, when the focus of refugee movements was across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.
But since then the Mediterranean route, which many Africans used, has been supplanted by the mass arrivals of Syrians and Iraqis in Europe via Turkey and the Balkans.
The Europeans sought to use the Valletta summit to cajole African governments into cooperating on receiving migrants sent back from Europe, while African leaders tried to use the meetings to force the Europeans to open up more legal channels for their people moving to Europe.
"For the Africans, the summit has been a huge opportunity to push their priorities," said Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand who heads the UN Development Programme.
"One of the most important points here is to push for legal migration. There’s a nod towards that. People end up in the European labour market anyway," she said.
Swedish delegates sounded desperate, according to witnesses, telling the summit that their asylum system was on the brink of collapse.
Sweden takes more refugees proportionately than any other country in Europe and expects to receive up to 190,000 asylum seekers this year – the equivalent of 1.2 million in Britain – and on Thursday reintroduced border controls, the fourth country in Europe to do so. Diplomats reacted to the Swedish pleas by noting that Germany would be next to voice similar distress calls.
The crisis is putting Europe’s Schengen free-travel zone, a cornerstone of EU integration, under the greatest stress ever.
"Saving Schengen is a race against time," said Donald Tusk, the European council president, who chaired the summit before convening yet another emergency EU summit directly after the African leaders departed.
The later meeting was to be dominated by the prospects of a deal with Turkey, in effect paying Ankara about €3bn to police the EU’s external border with Greece, the main point of entry to Europe for hundreds of thousands this year.
Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, arrived in Malta directly from negotiations with the Turks in Ankara and to brief the EU leaders.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is increasingly exposed and vulnerable in the migration crisis, and is keen to strike a deal with the Turks quickly. She and Timmermans met separately for long talks, diplomats said.
She will see Turkey’s mercurial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at a G20 summit this weekend and the talk in Malta was of an EU-Turkey summit within weeks in an attempt to reach an agreement to stem the flow of Syrians and others via Turkey.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, likened immigration levels in Germany to "an avalanche" and seemed to ask whether Merkel was to blame.
"I don’t know whether we are at the stage where the avalanche has already reached the valley or whether we’re still at the top of the slope,” he said. “If we are still at the top, we Germans cannot cope with this alone … You can trigger an avalanche when a rather careless skier goes on the slope."
On the African negotiations, the Europeans had to drop or dilute some of their demands. Many of the African migrants in Europe are deemed to be illegal and have no ID documents. The Europeans wanted to issue “laissez passer” documents to them, enabling them to be deported. This in effect meant European usurpation of the sovereignty of African states through the issue of quasi-passports. The intrusive proposal was dropped.
The wording in the summit declaration licensing forced deportations also met stiff resistance and had to be changed. The final statement said: "We agree to give preference to voluntary return."