by Maria Vasileiou
VALLETTA, Feb. 3 (Xinhua) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the European Union to stay united and hailed the plan to stem illegal migration from Libya to Europe endorsed by the 28 EU leaders at their informal summit in the capital of Malta on Friday.
"The work on immigration is still ongoing," Merkel said.
"The EU is drawing lessons on migration from years 2015 and 2016. It is clear that people smuggling networks have to be tackled. You have to remember how many people perished in the Mediterranean Sea."
Over 181,000 migrants and refugees, most of whom use Libya as a springboard, arrived in EU nations in 2016 through the central Mediterranean route.
As the deadliest route for migrants last year, the central Mediterranean route claimed the lives of 4,576 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Referring to the EU-Turkey deal agreed in March last year, which sought a dramatic decline in the flaws of immigration along the Aegean route, Merkel said migrants to Europe cannot go through smugglers, but through agreements.
The best policy for immigrants would be to stay close to their countries, by creating "safe heavens" in areas near their country of origin, she insisted.
Merkel highlighted the gap between the European position and U.S. President Donald Trump's migration policies. Trump has faced criticism after issuing a ban on refugees and entry into the United States of citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Asked about the new U.S. administration, Merkel said the EU must uphold its values in its foreign relations and defend its interests.
But she refrained from directly replying when asked to comment on Trump, who had labeled the EU as a "vehicle for Germany".
"There was a very broad agreement that we have a great interest in a good trans-Atlantic partnership wherever that is possible," she said.
In a letter sent to the 27 EU leaders earlier this week, European Council President Donald Tusk urged unity in dealing with challenges "more dangerous than ever before" in the history of the bloc.
Tusk also said "worrying declarations" by Trump were part of a set of external threats.
On the sidelines of the Malta summit, Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May had a "lengthy discussion."
The German chancellor told reporters that she was "pleased that May says that she wants a strong Europe".
"It's up to us, as the 27, to determine how strong and how good and how rigorous Europe is and how we solve our problems -- and Germany wants to do its part on that," said Merkel.
"Europe has its fate in its own hands," said Merkel. "The more we are clear about how we define our role in the world, the better we can also take care of our transatlantic relations."
In a later press conference, the German chancellor also warned Britain against a race to the bottom, as she said she sees "no reason" to compete with the United States and Britain on lowering corporation tax.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has suggested that Britain could cut taxes to encourage companies to move to Britain if it were shut out from trading with the EU.