EU leaders have agreed tougher rules aimed at making it easier to expel asylum-seekers whose refugee applications are denied, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
The measures are a response to increasing European concern over rising irregular immigration that has become a hot-button issue in several member countries.
That problem is “a European challenge that requires a European response,” EU leaders said in a final document at the end of a 16-hour summit looking at that and other topics.
The low numbers of failed asylum-seekers being returned to their home countries is a central preoccupation for the EU.
The bloc is already hosting millions of refugees from conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan
, while facing asylum claims from citizens of safer countries such as Bangladesh,Turkiye and Tunisia, many of whom end up being deemed economic migrants ineligible for asylum.
Von der Leyen said “pilot projects” relying on the EU’s border patrol, asylum and police cooperation agencies would look to instil “fast and fair asylum procedures” at the bloc’s external borders.
The EU leaders called on the commission “to immediately mobilize substantial EU funds” to reinforce that external border with “protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment,” according to the summit document.
That decision came after some EU countries, notably Austria, had pushed the commission to pay for reinforced fences designed to keep irregular migrants crossing from neighboring non-EU nations such as Turkiye.
Von der Leyen has repeatedly said EU funds would not pay for fences.
But EU officials and diplomats pointed out that, if Brussels paid for cameras, watch towers and other infrastructure along the external border, that would free up countries to pour their national budgets into paying for fences.
The summit also reached agreement on a “principle” under which one EU country can use a court decision in another EU member state to return an irregular migrant to their home country.
That would try to prevent “asylum shopping” whereby migrants go to a different country to apply to stay after being turned down in an initial one.
The EU leaders also agreed “to increase the use of the safe-country concepts” that will open the way to the bloc formulating a common list, von der Leyen said.
Her remarks came as Britain and its former Mediterranean colony Malta signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement covering areas including security and defense, migration, education, health and trade.
The agreement was signed during a short visit to the island by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who met Foreign Minister Ian Borg.
Britain and Malta have worked together on migration.
Malta is on the main migration route across the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe, with many migrants then attempting to carry on to the UK.
“We want to prevent people traffickers from harvesting money from some of the most desperate people in the world,” Cleverly said.