BRUSSELS, Oct 4 (Reuters) – European Union countries on Wednesday sealed a deal on how to handle irregular immigration at times of exceptionally high arrivals, taking a step towards overhauling the bloc’s asylum and migration rules before a pan-European election next year.
Envoys of the bloc’s 27 member states reached the agreement on Wednesday after overcoming the latest spat between Italy and Germany over charity ships picking people up in the sea as refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa try to cross the Mediterranean for Europe.
The 27 countries will now negotiate further with the European Parliament. They hope to have a functioning migration system in place ahead of a 2024 European Parliament election that takes place across the union of some 450 million people.
“Now we can move on with the negotiations,” said Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard. “It is important to get the pact in place, to ensure order at the EU’s external borders and reduce flows.”
Under the agreement, countries such as Italy that receive many Mediterranean arrivals could speed up asylum procedures and ask for swift help from EU peers, including financial aid and relocations.
The EU has been seeking to reform its asylum system since more than a million people reached its shores in 2015, catching the bloc by surprise and overwhelming countries of first arrival such as Greece and Italy.
Diplomatic sources said Italy agreed to the deal after removing some references to the NGO operations.
They added Poland and Hungary – staunchly opposed to hosting any people arriving from the Middle East and Africa – voted against, while their reluctant peers Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia abstained. The majority vote went through.
Wednesday’s meeting was the last chance to seal a deal before national leaders meet in Spain’s Granada on Thursday and Friday, where they are due to discuss irregular migration amid increased arrivals across the Mediterranean, including to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The spat between Rome and Berlin prevented a deal among the EU’s migration ministers last week. The tentative agreement on Wednesday leaves many questions open, including when and how it would be implemented.