The idea - suggested by Spain - was accepted by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and France, Italy and Germany, at a meeting at Evian on the French shore of Lake Geneva yesterday.
"The five largest EU countries are going to organise planes to take illegal immigrants home," said the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who chaired the meeting.
Giuseppe Pisanu, the Italian Interior Minister, said planes would tour the five countries picking up citizens from a single country of origin. Police from the five countries would join the flight. The first charter would leave "in a matter of days", Mr Pisanu said.
The idea is not completely new. Individual EU countries have chartered planes to remove illegal migrants in the past. Italy and Germany have co-operated in joint flights. But this is the first time that five have agreed to a single repatriation programme. The idea is partly to save money, but also to share the political responsibility for repatriation, and to show that the EU is capable of acting together against illegal immigration.
At the end of the two-day meeting of the "Group of Five" largest EU countries, M. Sarkozy said he had also proposed an annual ceiling on the number of legal immigrants accepted by the five. At his suggestion, the so-called G5 will also study ways of harmonising rules for allowing legal immigrants to bring family members to join them.
M. Sarkozy said France had increased expulsions of illegal migrants by half in the past year. He said a strong message should go out from the Evian meeting that "only those with valid papers have a right to enter our countries. Anyone else, who tries to stay on in contravention of our laws, will be sent home." The ministers also agreed a range of other measures to fight illegal immigration. There will be joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean and joint missions by two or three EU countries to countries such as Romania and Albania to try to discourage people from leaving without visas or work permits.
The five countries also agreed in principle to harmonise future requirements on "biometric" identity cards, to make them easier to read by police across the EU and more difficult to forge. The principle of "bio-metric" reading of documents should perhaps be extended to driving licences across the EU, they said.
M. Sarkozy suggested that Poland be invited to join the group to encourage co-operation on crime, terrorism and immigration within the EU.