Reuters International

Mata, 23, who's from Nigeria, tries to recover after fainting during a rescue operation of 104 sub-Saharan migrants aboard a raft by the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, in the central Mediterranean Sea, 24 miles north of the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

(reuters_tickers)

By Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald

VALLETTA (Reuters) - European Union leaders met on Malta on Friday to endorse plans they hope can forestall a new wave of migrants sailing for Italy from Africa, but aware anarchy in Libya means any quick fix is unlikely.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was attending, despite her plan to start negotiations by next month to take the U.K. out of the EU - a reminder that Britain, along with France, is one of the bloc's main military powers and Africa aid donors, and that Brussels must go on cooperating with London long after Brexit.

May will also brief her 27 peers on her visit last week to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose backing for Brexit, doubts on free trade, barring of refugees and warmth toward Russia all raise alarm in Europe. The British leader could feel a degree of frost over her rush to embrace Trump, although some eastern European leaders have also shown enthusiasm for him.

French President Francois Hollande said European governments should stick together for their own security rather than seek special national favours from Washington.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "Europe has its fate in its own hands ... The clearer we are about how we define our role in the world, the better we can also take care of our Transatlantic relations."

An agreement with Turkey last year halted an influx of refugees that had brought a million migrants into Germany via Greece. Now the EU has turned its attention to Italy, where a record 181,000 people arrived in 2016, most of them deemed to be seeking work and not in need of asylum.

The risks those people run in the seas around Malta after crossing the Sahara - more than 4,500 drowned last year - will be highlighted when leaders renew promises to help Africans live better without leaving home.

Popular hostility to immigration has stoked nationalist, anti-EU movements, creating a powerful incentive for leaders like Merkel, facing re-election, to appear to be in control.

"NO BAZOOKA"

EU leaders acknowledge they cannot replicate with Libya the deal they made with Turkey to take back asylum-seekers. As the U.N. refugee agency reminded them on Thursday, Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is not a safe place.

"There will be no bazooka," a senior EU official said, ruling out, at this stage, that the bloc could get more directly involved in handling asylum seekers inside Africa.

That leaves the EU trying to bolster the shaky, U.N.-backed Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, who was in Brussels and Rome on Thursday to secure pledges of cash and help to train and bolster coastal and border forces.

As well as trying to disrupt smuggling gangs, the EU aims to deport more failed asylum seekers from Italy, using its cash to overcome resistance among African states to taking people back. Deportations may never occur on a grand scale, but EU officials argue that a more visible risk of being deported may dissuade would-be migrants from setting out in the first place.

Other deterrence, including publicising the fate of many migrants, may be having an effect. In Agadez in Niger, the numbers gathering to cross the Sahara have plunged, though smugglers may just have altered routes.

The European leaders will turn their attention after May leaves later in the day to how to shore up popular support for the EU. They will hash out ideas for a declaration on the bloc's future when they mark its 60th anniversary in Rome in March.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Reuters

 Reuters International