Austria urges EU to launch migrant talks with Egypt

SALZBURG, Austria – Austria urged its European Union partners Thursday to enter talks with Egypt to help stem the flow of migrants entering Europe from Africa, amid deep divisions over how to manage the challenge.

Kurz, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and EU Council President Donald Tusk visited Cairo over the weekend for talks with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a top army general who took office in 2014.

Both men have praised him for stopping people from leaving its coast bound for Europe.

“Egypt has proven that it can be efficient,” Kurz told reporters at an EU summit in Salzburg, Austria. “Since 2016, it has prevented ships sailing from Egypt to Europe or, when they have sailed, it has taken them back.”

Kurz said Egypt is “now prepared possibly to deepen cooperation with us in talks. We should use that.”

He also said EU leaders support the idea of entering into talks with other North African countries as well.

Beyond keeping tight control over Egypt’s coastline, Sissi could have important influence with the military and militias in lawless, neighboring Libya; a main departure point for migrants trying to enter Europe through Italy.

The call comes after a summer in which Italy’s anti-migrant government closed its ports to NGO ships, and even its own coast guard, carrying people rescued at sea. Hundreds of migrants spent unnecessary days at sea or aboard boats while EU countries bickered over who should take them.

Looking for help from Sissi is a new sign of the EU’s determination to outsource the migrant challenge, even though arrival numbers are barely a trickle compared to 2015, when well over a million people entered Europe, mostly fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.

EU countries are studying plans to create “disembarkation platforms” in northern African countries, where people rescued at sea could be dropped off for screening. No African country has expressed interest in hosting one so far.

The EU’s inability to balance responsibility for the migrants and share the burden of hosting them has been a vote-winner for far-right parties across the 28-nation bloc.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports talks with North Africa, believes countries like Italy, Greece and Spain must take responsibility for migrant arrivals, but he also underlines the importance of European solidarity.

“There are rules and they have to be respected. We have to protect our citizens but we must do it while respecting our values. Also, responsibilities cannot be upheld if there is no solidarity,” he said.

Macron and the leaders of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands repeated a similar joint line on the balance between responsibilities and solidarity after talks earlier this month. However, they appeared to suggest that solidarity is best expressed by giving European money to partners who need help. No leader offered to share the refugee burden.

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

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