BRUSSELS — European Union leaders agreed Thursday to pursue the cooperation of countries in North Africa and to beef up the bloc’s external borders to stop large numbers of migrants from entering Europe.
A statement from an EU summit in Brussels where the leaders of member countries discussed migration emphasized the need to work with the countries that Europe-bound migrants depart from or travel through.
Working with those countries on “investigating, apprehending and prosecuting” smugglers and traffickers that take refugees and economic migrants on dangerous journeys by land and sea should be intensified,” the leaders said.
Well over 1 million migrants entered Europe in 2015, most of them Syrians and Iraqis fleeing conflicts in their homelands. The number of arrivals dropped significantly after the EU struck a deal with Turkey to stem the influx.
Turkey was offered at least 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees in exchange for efforts to prevent migrants from leaving for Europe. The EU wants to reproduce the model elsewhere.
The EU leaders also called for an improvement in external border surveillance, without going into details.
One reason the EU has looked outside for solutions is the refusal by some member countries to accept refugee quotas or to share the job of hosting the newcomers, the majority of whom arrive via a handful of southern European nations.
Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy and more recently Spain have complained of being abandoned to manage the influx alone. Tensions over how best to handle migrant arrivals — which pale in comparison to the number of refugees fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — have fueled support for far-right parties in Europe.
“We can’t just say that a country with a border on the sea is suddenly the only one responsible” for migrants, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said. “The problem is European, and the solution should be a European one as well.”
Amid the standoff over quotas, momentum is gathering for countries to pay more money — to destination countries like Greece and Italy, for example, or for development aid to countries of origin — instead of hosting refugees.
“We’re recommending that instead of mandatory quotas that we go the way of solidarity. This means that each country will provide a contribution where it is possible and where it makes sense,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, said.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said such a strategy might work.
“It’s possible, no refugees but more money,” Tajani told reporters, adding that it must be substantial funds, “not nothing, not peanuts.”
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the idea of “solidarity commitments.”
“The title sounds good, but if everyone says, ‘The commitment to solidarity I am choosing is the solidarity of giving more money for Africa,’ then we won’t have solved certain problems and the arrival countries will be left alone again,” Merkel said.
Migration experts and nonprofit organizations have expressed doubt about the effectiveness of any scheme that doesn’t involve relocating refugees to more countries.
As the EU looks abroad for a solution, Egypt has appeared as a prime candidate for a new partnership. Kurz and European Council President Donald Tusk held talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and both praised him for stopping people from leaving Egypt’s coast for Europe.
The aim would be to get the Egyptian coast guard to patrol the waters off Libya — the main departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of reaching Italy — and to return any people rescued to Africa.
In response to criticism that it’s neglecting the rights and well-being of migrants, the EU has said that it works closely with the U.N.’s refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. Both agencies have noted that more people are dying during the sea crossing — more than 1,700 so far this year — and a “dangerously toxic” debate about immigration in some parts of Europe.
“The current tenor of the political debate - painting a picture of Europe under siege - is not only unhelpful but completely out of touch with reality,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said. “Debate is welcome. Scapegoating refugees and migrants for political gain is not.”
David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.