An EU-Libya deal to manage migration in a similar way to Europe's pact with Turkey would not be feasible because Libya is too dangerous to host refugees, an expert said.
With Italy's government under pressure from an influx of migrants from across the Mediterranean, the suggestion emerged in the Italian press this week that the EU could pay Libya to stop migrant boats from leaving its coast.
The proposal would be similar to the 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey, in which illegal migrants are returned to Turkey and Ankara enlisted to guard Europe's borders in return for financial support.
But Italy’s government played down the idea of a pact with Libya and denied that it would put forward the proposal at a summit of EU leaders on May 24.
Luigi Scazzieri, an expert on EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, told The National a Turkey-style deal was out of the question because it would involve housing migrants in Libya.
“The way the deal with Turkey works is that migrants and refugees who arrive in Greece and did not qualify for asylum were returned to Turkey,” he said.
“This wouldn’t be feasible with Libya – it was difficult enough with Turkey, but in the end it proved just about possible – but in the case of Libya it just wouldn’t be considered a safe country to return people to.
“So that element of the deal, which was a very big part of the deal, wouldn’t be possible.”
Mr Scazzieri said another part of the proposal, financial support from the EU to Libya, would not be anything new.
Brussels was already involved in training Libyan coastguards and Italy co-operates with Libyan authorities on migration, he said.
Italian premier Mario Draghi is under pressure after the number of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores rose to 13,000 since the start of 2021.
The number is far higher than the tally of 4,200 people who arrived over the same period last year, and the 1,100 who came in early 2019.
More than 2,200 asylum seekers from Tunisia and Libya arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa last weekend alone.
“The political pressure is very much there, also because of the pandemic and the idea that the migrants might actually be bringing in new variants of the coronavirus,” Mr Scazzieri said.
Italy wants EU neighbours to share migrant burden
The suggestion of a Turkey-style deal was mooted in the newspaper La Repubblica but Italy's government said it was not on the agenda.
“At the moment there is no initiative regarding creating a similar deal to what was done with Turkey," an official told Reuters.
Instead, Italy is pushing for other EU countries to share the burden of incoming migrants.
Mr Draghi said talks were under way with France and Germany over a burden-sharing deal.
"The priority in the short run is to contain migration pressure in the summer months," Mr Draghi said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who was visiting Rome on Wednesday, said his country was ready to help.
"Italy cannot be left on its own," he said after a meeting with his counterpart Luigi Di Maio.
"Germany has already in the past taken part in the relocation of refugees and we will do it again in the future … but we expect other partners to do the same.”
In addition, European powers may seek to ensure that any co-operation with Libya would outlast the country’s current unity government.
The new government took office in March after a ceasefire between warring administrations last year, and elections are expected later this year.
“They’re trying to make sure that any co-operation that they arrange is actually going to endure,” Mr Scazzieri said.