A window of opportunity has opened for the European Union to make progress on its seemingly intractable problem of migration. As a first step, several EU interior ministers met this week in Malta to draft new measures to help refugees who are rescued in the Mediterranean. Their plan should serve as the basis of a new approach for Europe.

Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Malta agreed Monday to automatically accept their fair share of migrants rescued at sea. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer pledged that Germany will take 25 percent of those saved. When the plan goes before all EU ministers Oct. 8, other countries may join the pact.

That’s progress, but it addresses only a small part of a huge problem. The real goal must be to fix the EU’s flawed “Dublin regulation” for refugees. In theory, this system requires migrants to apply for asylum only in the first EU member state they physically enter. Owing to geography, that usually means Greece, Italy or Spain. In practice, most refugees make their way to Germany and the north.

After the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, Germany pressed for an EU-wide solution. Under its proposal, Europe would have policed its external borders, then allocated migrants among all member states based on economic strength, population size and other factors.

That plan went nowhere. One reason was that countries such as Hungary and Poland, worried about an influx of immigrants, simply balked. But even officials in Berlin now concede that their solution had problems. It would’ve allocated only people granted asylum, whereas almost all the people arriving in, say, Italy are economic migrants from Africa. Moreover, what’s to stop refugees in such a system, once resettled, from moving again within the EU? Countries would have to return them to other member states, in a process that resembles the dysfunction of the current system.

Wisely, the new approach being discussed does not depend on unanimity. Instead, a coalition of the willing – certainly including France, Germany and Italy but ideally others – would forge ahead. These countries would agree to automatically take their shares of new arrivals, so that no one country gets overwhelmed.

Although this system would be an improvement, the danger is that it could open an automatic door to economic migrants, thereby creating a “pull effect” that encourages millions of Africans to make the journey north. The key, then, is to smooth the system post-relocation. Recipient countries would have to process asylum applications much faster, in a new and harmonized way, so that decisions are reached within weeks, not months or years. All those rejected should be immediately deported.

Migrants can be lawfully deported only if their countries of origin cooperate. So the other – far trickier – part of this plan is to negotiate deals with those countries. Europe could offer these countries direct investment as well as easier legal migration, through scholarships and streamlined visas, in return for automatically taking back their citizens. A similar arrangement between the EU and Ukraine might be a model.

The goal would be to send a message to poor countries that illegal migration to the EU will not succeed, whereas the legal sort, though slower, is both safer and more promising. This should keep down the numbers of desperate open-sea crossings and the macabre business of people smuggling.

Europe’s migration problems won’t end under such a deal, but they should quickly improve. The best way to protect the EU’s borders is to ensure the failure of illegal entries and the promise of legal and orderly immigration.


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