Migrants disembark from a merchant ship in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, Italy, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - EU governments agreed on Thursday to speed the formation of a common European border and coastguard that could be in service by this summer to control migrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa.
Interior ministers from the 28 member states gave a mandate to their Dutch chairman at a meeting in Luxembourg to open talks with the European Parliament as soon as possible.
The Dutch minister, Klaas Dijkhoff, said the force, based on the EU's Frontex agency with more powers and more resources, should be operational this summer. European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said he hoped the European Border and Coast Guard would be working by mid-June.
EU officials said full establishment would take longer but that elements of the plan could go into effect in a couple of months.
The rush to set up a force, to be drawn mostly from seconded national personnel and designed to intervene rapidly where the EU's external border may be overwhelmed, comes after nearly 1.3 million people sought asylum in the EU last year, with almost 1 million coming to Greece and most of the rest to Italy.
Ministers noted a sharp drop in those reaching Greek islands since a deal last month under which Turkey will take back anyone makes the crossing. But a day after a report of up to 500 people drowned on one vessel, they warned of a possible renewed surge on the longer and more dangerous route from Africa to Italy.
"If we sit back, the situation will occur like we have seen in Greece," Dijkhoff told reporters, adding his voice to calls on Rome to ensure it is ready to handle those arriving.
He also called on governments to make good on pledges to take in more Syrian refugees from Turkey as they agreed: "If we don't deliver ... the migration flows will increase again," he said.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said a Turkey-style deal with a new government the EU hopes can stabilise Libya could help.
Officials said a discussion on long-term reform of the asylum system to spread responsibility for arrivals beyond the Mediterranean frontline revealed continued deep divisions.
Some countries, especially in the ex-communist east, have ruled out taking in significant numbers of refugees, angering notably Germany which took in 1 million people last year.
Addressing concerns about security following the Islamic State attacks on Paris and Brussels, ministers agreed to push on with plans to link a confusing array of national and EU databases on travellers and suspects with a view to having all such data available to authorities and easily searchable.
Highlighting the gaps in existing intelligence, the EU's counterterrorism coordinator gave ministers figures indicating that more than 2,000 of some 5,300 European Islamists logged by various intelligence services as fighting in Syria or Iraq had had their details entered by EU states into a shared EU system.
A month after suicide bombers killed 32 people in Brussels, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Islamic State could be sending more European fighters to attack their home countries.
(editing by John Stonestreet)