A year after coming into office, Giorgia Meloni has dared break a long-held taboo in the European Union's migration policy.
Last week, the Italian prime minister left Brussels bewildered when she announced a new protocol with her Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, to outsource the processing of up to 36,000 asylum applications per year to the Balkan country.
The procedure will apply to migrants who are rescued at sea by Italian authorities and then disembarked in the Albanian coastal town of Shëngjin, where two centres will be built at Rome's expense and managed exclusively by Italian civil servants.
Migrants hosted in the hubs will not be allowed to leave the premises as they wait for their claims to be examined, which should not last more than 28 days. According to Meloni, pregnant women, children and vulnerable people will be excluded.
The launch date has been set for spring 2024, although the protocol still needs to be translated into proper legal acts and undergo ratification by the Albanian parliament.
"I consider this to be an agreement with a European scope," Meloni said, standing next to Prime Minister Rama. Both leaders smiled widely while shaking hands.
Meloni's enthusiasm, however, is still being digested in Brussels.
A full week after the announcement, the European Commission, which, as the bloc's executive branch, is tasked with overseeing the implementation of EU legislation, has not yet issued an assessment or opinion.
Instead, the Commission has voiced generically worded warnings about the need to comply with European and international law.
Breaking new ground
For all intents and purposes, the Italy-Albania deal is ground-breaking, as no member state has ever established an arrangement with a non-EU country to outsource parts of its asylum responsibilities. But its existence should not be read in isolation.
In fact, Meloni's initiative, while bold in nature, ties in with the latest approach adopted by the EU to strengthen its common migration policy: the so-called "external dimension."
This term refers to partnerships with other countries designed to prevent the irregular arrival of asylum seekers, crack down on human smuggling and speed up the deportation of rejected applicants. Bolstering the "external dimension," the thinking goes, will make it easier to manage the "internal dimension" of migration, namely the reception, accommodation and relocation of those entitled to international protection.
The approach has been thrust to the top of the political agenda due to a post-pandemic rise in asylum claims across the bloc, which reached 519,000 in the first half of this year and could exceed one million by December.
"The external aspects of migration are essential for the successful implementation of our policy," Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said last month in a letter addressed to EU leaders.
Von der Leyen's letter featured a detailed list of 15 "action points" (some still in the works) to boost the "external dimension," such as reinforced search-and-rescue cooperation with Maghreb countries, a pilot scheme for accelerating the registration of applicants, and the mutual recognition of return decisions (deportations).
Thus far, the strategy's most tangible outcome has been a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia, the country that has for the past few years acted as the main departure point for the migrants who arrive on Italian shores. But the memorandum, signed with much fanfare in mid-July, with Meloni in attendance, has been plagued with setbacks, controversies and even an extraordinary refund of €60 million.
Egypt is now touted as the next candidate for a tailor-made accord, despite the country being frequently criticised for the human rights violations committed under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sis.
Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Senegal and Mauritania are also mentioned in von der Leyen's letters as nations with which the EU should work closer. But none of them are envisioned as outposts of extended sovereignty to process asylum requests, an idea that remains deeply controversial in Europe, as reflected in the backlash to the UK-Rwanda plan.
Under the British plan, migrants who irregularly enter the UK will be flown to Rwanda and remain there while their petitions are processed. If successful, the applicants will be given permanent residency in Rwanda and forbidden from going back to the UK.
The initiative proved divisive from the onset and was subject to a drawn-out legal fight since June 2022, when the European Court of Human Rights intervened at the last minute to prevent the take-off of the first Rwanda-bound flight. It was later deemed unlawful by the British Supreme Court, signalling its political death.
Denmark, a socialist-led EU country with a "zero-refugee" strategy, took steps to replicate the deal with the African country but earlier this year put the scheme on hold. Most recently, Austria, another hardliner, expressed its willingness to establish a "Rwanda-style" system. And Germany's ruling coalition, after adopting a set of stricter migration measures, said it would at least examine the possibility of outsourcing.
It is still too soon to say whether these draft ideas would emulate the Italy-Albania deal. Nevertheless, Meloni's determination to prove theory can be actually turned into practice is set to resonate across the bloc, particularly as the collapse of the Rwanda plan leaves other Western countries looking for viable alternatives.
"I believe (the deal) could become a model of cooperation between EU and non-EU countries in managing migration flows," the prime minister told Il Messaggero in an interview.
Testing the law
Still, Meloni's project is plagued by questions about legality and practicality.
Chief among them is the apparent extraterritorial application of EU law that Rome intends to pursue in the centres that will be built on Albanian soil. As part of the deal, Tirana effectively cedes sovereignty and agrees to let the two hubs be governed "according to the relevant Italian and European regulations," rather than domestic law.
"Disputes that may arise between the aforementioned authorities and the migrants welcomed in the aforementioned premises are subject exclusively to Italian jurisdiction," says the text, leaked to Italian media.
Albania will provide security services and surveillance in the "perimeter" around the centres but will not be allowed entry. Only in emergency cases, like a fire, or when an asylum seeker escapes will Albanian law enforcement intervene inside the premises.
This particular division of responsibilities appears to be in conflict with the bloc's Asylum Procedures Directive, which applies to "all applications for international protection made in the territory, including at the border, in the territorial waters or in the transit zones" of member states – seemingly excluding the requests filed in neighbouring nations.
The European Commission has yet to clarify how the Italy-Albania protocol will work within the present – or future – legal framework. Meloni's office, Palazzo Chigi, did not immediately reply to emailed questions.
But humanitarian NGOs have been vocal in their opposition.
Calling the protocol "illegal and unworkable," Amnesty International said it would have "devastating consequences for people seeking asylum, who could be subjected to lengthy detention and other violations, outside the scrutiny of Italian judicial authorities."
In a preliminary assessment, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said the deal appeared to envisage "the automatic use of detention," as asylum seekers will not be allowed to leave the centres as their claims are reviewed, and warned the cessation of jurisdiction was "not enough" to enable the application of EU law outside a member state's territory.
"There are multiple ways that the Protocol is likely to breach EU law however it is not as immediately and obviously unlawful as the proposal which Austria touted," the organisation said.
Alberto Horst Neidhardt, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre who researches migration policy, said the extraterritorial processing of asylum requests was "definitely not a new idea" but had in the past been held back by "legal questions" and "policy, moral and practical" concerns.
In his view, the core purpose of the Albania deal – that is, alleviating Italy's overwhelmed asylum system – will be eventually dented by Italy's international obligations: Rome will have to assume responsibility for the claimants whether they are successful– through relocation – or unsuccessful – through deportation.
"For me, this is very much a political stunt. It is an agreement pursued by a government which has been elected on the premise that it would limit irregular arrivals and instead, it has seen the number of persons arriving irregularly double since it took over office," Horst Neidhardt told Euronews in an interview.
"This kind of deal will probably be considered and promoted again in the future. But I do wonder whether they will go ahead because of these problems. But I would also question their practical effects and whether they will benefit the countries proposing them."
This article has been updated to reflect the ruling of the British Supreme Court.