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EU moves to tighten borders under major migration deal

European Union governments have agreed to overhaul the bloc's laws on migrants and asylum seekers. The proposals would make deportations easier and spread the burden of handling asylum claims across the bloc.

(CN) — With far-right anti-immigrant political parties on the march across Europe, the European Union is moving toward tightening its borders even further under proposals approved late Thursday.

At a marathon meeting of home affairs and interior ministers in Luxembourg, the EU announced a breakthrough deal to overhaul the bloc's migration laws after years of acrimonious debates.

But advocates for migrants warned the changes would make it even harder for asylum seekers to get protection in Europe, which has become increasingly hostile to migrants as governments erect border fences and violently push migrants away from the EU.

The proposals would both make it easier to deport people deemed ineligible for asylum and lessen the burdens faced by border countries like Italy and Greece by getting the bloc as a whole to take responsibility for asylum seekers.

The deal can be seen as a partial win for Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose tough-on-migration rhetoric helped propel her party into government last autumn. Italy played a key role in brokering Thursday's deal.

In government, Meloni's right-wing ruling coalition has sped up deportations, cut back on sea rescues and hindered the work of non-government humanitarian ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Far-right parties like hers are surging in opinion polls in Spain, Germany, France, Austria and elsewhere.

Dealing with the large number of refugees and migrants seeking entry into the EU is one of Europe's most toxic political issues and it's led to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant parties, such as Meloni's Brothers of Italy.

Last year, the EU received more than 962,000 asylum applications, the most since 2016. Large numbers of migrants continue to arrive this year with many making a dangerous sea crossing from North Africa to Italy on dinky vessels. In February, more than 90 migrants drowned when their vessel broke apart off the shore of southern Italy.

Thursday's deal must be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council, a body made up of heads of state. But its prospects appear good after passing through the gnarly negotiations of interior and home affairs ministers. An overhaul of migration laws has long been both a priority and a stumbling block for the EU.

The proposals were met with fierce criticism by some political groups, in particular those on the left, and the deal poses a major challenge for Germany's Greens, which are a key coalition government partner. In the past, the Greens have opposed much of what is in the deal and party leaders are now under pressure to stop its passage.

Annalena Baerbock, Germany's foreign minister and co-leader of the Greens, expressed disappointment with the deal but said Germany had to make compromises to get other EU countries to agree on a system for distributing asylum seekers across the bloc.

“Honesty requires that if we as the federal government had been able to pass the reform on our own, it would have looked different,” she said in a statement.

Voting against the compromise would have meant “a common European asylum policy based on solidarity would be dead for years,” she added. “And instead, all those who want to raise national walls in Europe again anyway would have a free pass.”

Under the proposals, applications for asylum would be processed quickly at special centers near the EU border where people crossed.

The new law would allow EU states to return migrants to countries deemed safe outside the bloc where they lived or worked prior to making it into the EU. For example, Italy might be allowed to send many people who arrive on boats from Tunisia back to that North African country.

Andrew Geddes, the head of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute, said the deal “reinforces the drive to make it more difficult to get to Europe, more difficult for those that do arrive and easier to return those that do.”

The proposals also call for a new “solidarity” system that would make all 27 EU states share responsibility for assessing asylum applications and housing people under consideration for asylum.

Italy, Greece, Croatia and Spain complain about long-standing EU laws that say asylum claims must be processed by the country where a person first enters into the bloc, which has left these border countries overwhelmed and often unable to assess many claims.

The deal says countries are not obliged to take in a share of asylum seekers, but not doing so would incur a cost of 20,000 euros (about $21,500) for each person they refuse to take in. That money would go into a fund slated for projects to help solve the root causes of migration. 

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Italy refused to accept a deal, as sought by northern countries, in which his country would be paid to house asylum seekers instead of the relocation system set up by the deal.  

“First and foremost, we have averted the possibility that Italy and all member states of first entry would be paid to keep irregular migrants in their territories: Italy will not be the migrant collection center on behalf of Europe,” Piantedosi said, as reported by ANSA, an Italian state news agency. 

The proposal says at least 30,000 asylum seekers each year would be moved from border countries to other EU states.

“No member state can deal with the challenges of migration alone,” said Maria Malmer Stenergard, a Swedish minister overseeing Thursday's negotiations. “Front-line countries need our solidarity.”

The EU also wants to establish new rules to punish people who try to enter the bloc on false asylum claims and prevent migrants from moving from where they are processed to other EU states.

The deal was approved by a majority of EU states, though Poland and Hungary voted against it. Both Warsaw and Budapest are run by vehemently anti-immigrant governments. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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