The move raised eyebrows among human rights campaigners because of Egypt’s many well-documented abuses.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country currently holds the 28-member bloc’s rotating presidency, announced the plan for “in-depth cooperation” with Cairo on Thursday at an informal EU summit in Salzburg, Austria.
“Egypt and the North African countries can be important partners for us in preventing ships heading to Europe and after their rescue being brought back, in other words to the countries of transit,” Kurz said.
“Only in this way can we reduce illegal migration, can we destroy the business model of the smugglers, and stop drownings in the Mediterranean.”
Setting an example
The announcement came after Kurz and EU Council President Donald Tusk visited Cairo over the weekend for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former top army general who seized power in a coup.
“We’ve got to ensure that as few people as possible leave northern African countries for Europe. If they do, the situation should be dealt with as close to the African coast as possible,” said Kurz.
On Thursday, Kurz said Egypt was “efficient” and praised Sisi for providing “an example when it comes to illegal migration and people smuggling”.
Tusk, meanwhile, said he will meet Sisi this weekend to take talks forward, and confirmed a EU-Arab League summit will be held in Cairo next February.
Migration talks with other north African countries will also be launched, he added.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Salzburg, said the plan for cooperation with Egypt was at an “embryonic” stage, with neither Kurz or Tusk providing significant detail on Thursday about the specific shape of any future arrangement.
“[But] it’s the philosophy that counts and the philosophy says it’s better to protect the Schengen free-movement zone inside the EU, not to allow them to come into the bloc in the first place, and that’s a pretty hardline approach by any means,” he said.
The Schengen Agreement – signed by 26 European countries, including 22 EU states – abolished many of the EU’s internal borders, allowing for passport-free movement throughout most parts of the bloc.
Giulia Lagana, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based Open Society European Policy Institute, said the EU’s move to win Egyptian assistance on migration would likely require the bloc to make “significant concessions” to Cairo.
“I would tend to think those are not just financial but would also include closing an eye to the human rights abuses being perpetrated in Egypt,” Lagana told Al Jazeera.
“It would be very difficult to put into practice and of course if it does happen in some form it would be extremely dangerous from a human rights point of view.”
Under Sisi, Egyptian authorities have clamped down on freedom of speech and dissent, prompting Amnesty International to label the country an “open-air prison for critics”.
The EU’s look for help from the Egyptian leader comes as the number of migrants arriving in Europe is down significantly compared with 2015, when more than a million people entered the continent, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.
About 77,555 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), down from 131,884 arrivals by a similar point last year and 298,663 for the same period in 2016.
Leonard Doyle, a director for the IOM’s media division, called on the bloc to put “saving migrants lives and respecting migrants rights at the front and centre of everything”.
“I would be wary of looking at one silver bullet to solve a very, very complex, massive problem that is affecting people from right across the subcontinent of Africa and indeed other places,” Doyle told Al Jazeera.