Leaders of 16 European Union members are meeting in Brussels to discuss possible ways forward in a political crisis over migration which is causing deep rifts within the bloc.
Sunday’s mini-summit was called by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who billed it as an “informal working meeting” in advance of an important EU summit on migration policy scheduled for June 28 and 29.
The emergency meeting will be an opportunity for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find possible solutions as she faces a domestic crisis, which is posing an existential threat to her three-months-old coalition government.
Merkel came under pressure last week when her interior minister Horst Seehofer threatened to unilaterally implement an immigration “master plan” the chancellor is opposed to.
She believes a measure in the policy to send migrants who have already registered elsewhere in the EU away at the German border goes against Europe’s open border agreement.
Last Monday, Seehofer said he would give Merkel until after the EU summit later this week to come up with a European solution.
Merkel on Friday played down the importance of Sunday’s meeting, calling it “no more and no less than a working and consultative meeting”.
She was also pessimistic about the prospects of finding consensus among all EU members.
“We know that no solution will be reached on Thursday and Friday at the level of the 28 member states … on the overall issue of migration” she told a press conference during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon.
Instead, the German chancellor expressed hope “bilateral, trilateral and multilateral” deals would be reached.
Disagreement over how to reform European migration policy was rife among leaders in the days leading up to the summit.
A main priority is reform of the Dublin regulation that determines that the state through which an asylum seeker enters the EU is the state responsible for their asylum application.
Redistribution of migrants through quotas received fierce opposition from some countries after it was first proposed in 2015.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini on Friday reiterated his hard line on immigration.
“We cannot take in one more person,” he told German magazine Der Spiegel. “On the contrary; we want to send away a few.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte agreed to attend Sunday’s meeting only after Merkel had assured him a draft leaders’ statement prepared by the European Commission and circulated on Wednesday would be put aside.
There was tension between Italy and France, too.
On Saturday, Salvini called French President Emmanuel Macron “arrogant” and warned that France would not “transform Italy into Europe’s refugee camp”.
The statement came after Macron had said he supported the idea of imposing financial sanctions on EU countries refusing to take in refugees and migrants with proven asylum status.
Speaking alongside Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Macron told a press conference “You can’t have countries that massively benefit from the solidarity of the European Union and that massively voice their national selfishness when it comes to migrant issues.”
On Thursday, Macron had said nationalism and anti-migrant sentiments were spreading in Europe like “leprosy”.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday said he would reinstate border controls if Seehofer goes ahead with rejecting migrants at the German border.
The 31-year-old leader has been pushing for stronger European borders. He is set to take over the EU presidency, which is rotated every six months, on July 1.
The leaders of the Visegrad group countries, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, announced on Thursday they would be boycotting Sunday’s summit altogether.
“We understand there are domestic political difficulties in some countries but that cannot lead to pan-European haste,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in an apparent dig at Merkel.
‘Crisis of political will’
Europe has struggled to formulate a joint migration policy since the 2015 refugee crisis saw the arrival of more than one million people.
But the current crisis comes amid a significant drop in the number of migrants and refugees arriving on Europe’s shores.
The United Nations’ refugee agency has said it expects about 80,000 people to arrive by sea this year, which is about half the number from 2017.
“We do not have a crisis of numbers. We continue to have a crisis of political will,” AP news agency quoted UNHCR Europe chief Sophie Magennis as saying.