Sunday

18th Nov 2018

EU migration talks hit Italian rock

  • Italy's new prime minister threatened to veto the summit's conclusions (Photo: Consilium)

EU leaders were getting ready Thursday evening (28 June) for an all-out confrontation over migration, with positions still irreconcilable on how to deal with people trying to cross the Mediterranean sea.

"It will be difficult today to have a final agreement on all the issues but we should be able to discuss about everything," said Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel before the EU summit opened in Brussels in early afternoon.

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  • Merkel (l) raised the stakes at the start of the summit, underlying the need for a European-wide solution. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

But simultaneously, his Italian colleague Giuseppe Conte threatened to veto the summit's conclusions if he considered that his country did not get enough support from other member states to deal with migrants.

Conte wants other EU states to allow boats carrying people across the Mediterranean in their ports as well.

"We need concrete facts, not more expressions of 'solidarity'," Conte insisted.

On Thursday evening, a mid-summit press conference by European Council and Commission chiefs Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker was even cancelled because, as a statement put it, "one member reserved their position on the entire conclusions, no conclusions have been agreed at this stage."

The Italian government, with its far-right League interior minister Matteo Salvini, is refusing to let migrants who have been rescued at sea to disembark on its territories.

"Italy wants to abolish its responsibilities as a country of 'first entry'. There is a problem here, this cannot be accepted," a European diplomat said.

It is yet unclear what compromise could be found that both satisfy Italy's demands and deals with German chancellor Angela Merkel's domestic political concern on being able to push asylum seekers back to the country they first registered in – a demand of her Bavarian ally and interior minister Horst Seehofer.

Merkel held a bilateral meeting before the summit with Italy's premier Conte to find common ground.

'No Bavarian party'

Some EU leaders are irked by Seehofer's threat to push back asylum seekers unilaterally.

"I hope we will be constructive today, a party from Bavaria cannot decide about the way Europe functions," Bettel said.

European Council president Donald Tusk, the summit chair, had called ahead the meeting on leaders to focus on the so-called 'external dimension' of the management of migration - especially by agreeing on the principle of "disembarkation platforms" outside Europe and more help to countries where migrants come from.

"If they focus on external aspects of migration, there is a potential for agreement. There won't be an agreement on the internal aspect," said an EU official at the start of the discussions.

Platforms?

He said that some member states are "a bit concerned" by the idea of platforms outside of the EU. "But disembarkation platforms can be an answer to trafficking. First, we need an agreement that this is something we should explore," he added.

Several countries insisted to have wider discussions, raising issues that were likely to highlight EU divisions.

"No solution will be efficient if it's not European and cooperative, based on three pillars," a source close to French president Emmanuel Macron said, referring to the external dimension, border control and the internal dimension.

Macron, together with Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez, has proposed, in addition to non-EU platforms, to establish centers in EU countries where rescued migrants would disembark – an idea rejected by Italy.

Cannot escape geography

The French source, who said that Macron also has support from other countries like Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands, said that rescued migrants should be taken to the "safest, nearest" port, and pointed out that Italy could not escape geography when people embark from Libya.

The official said that the centres, which he described as "second generation hotspots" - in reference to centre established in Greece after 2015 to retain migrants and examine their asylum requests - were a way to "Europeanise" Italy's task of processing the migrants before they can be sent to other countries to relief Italy.

But the French proposal bumps into another controversial issue, the relocation of asylum seekers.

V4 vs Relocation

Several countries, mainly the Visegrad Group composed of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, still fiercely oppose mandatory relocation.

"We are taking a hard line, to say that Polish sovereignty vis-a-vis its borders, its national security, must be maintained in the face of [migrant] relocations," explained Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

A day after Tusk called on agreed solutions to counter "a tendency towards overt authoritarianism", Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban reversed the argument and insisted that "stopping migrants" and sending back those who arrived in Europe would be the way to respect the people's will and "to restore the European democracy."

Meanwhile, the discussion over disembarkation platforms - hotspots were people would be retained before they reach Europe - proves to be difficult.

"There is nothing concrete on the table, we can feel the reluctance of the UNHCR and IOM," the first diplomat noted, referring to the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.

European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker also warned that leaders could not "here in Brussels decide for North African countries" because it would amount to "neo-colonialism".

Merkel, for her part, underlying the need for a European-wide solution.

"Europe faces many challenges, but that of migration could become the make-or-break one for the EU," Merkel told German MPs earlier on Thursday.

Analysis

EU leaders take on migration to fight political crisis

The main objective of Thursday's summit in Brussels will be to agree on new measures to reduce illegal migration, in order to help Angela Merkel at home and fight populists and extremists across the bloc.

Analysis

Migration crisis is one of mismanagement: the figures

Far fewer people are arriving by sea into Europe. As EU leaders are discussing new measures, the debate appears to suggest a major migration crisis. Yet the crisis is more about political indecision.

UN sets conditions for EU 'disembarkation platforms'

Countries in north African coast must first set up humane reception centres before the UN and the International Organization for Migration agree to any migrant camps, such as those being discussed by EU leaders.

EU still not clear on where to put rescued migrants

The mandate for Operation Sophia, the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean sea, ends in December. Demands to change it, including new rules on disembarkation, are set to be agreed within the next few weeks.

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