EU leaders are meeting in Brussels for two days of talks on migration that German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as “make-or-break” for the union.
Members have disagreed over dealing with refugees and accepting migrants.
The EU leaders are deeply divided over how to handle the flow of Europe-bound refugees and migrants, despite a significant drop in arrivals this year.
They will also discuss security, trans-Atlantic trade and their troubled ties with US President Donald Trump, economic sanctions on Russia, the bloc’s next long-term budget from 2021, the eurozone reform and Brexit, among others.
Italy‘s hardline new premier threatened on Thursday to block a joint EU statement on migration.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would refuse to endorse the conclusions of the meeting in Brussels if fellow leaders fail to do more to help Italy.
“Italy does not need more words, but concrete actions,” Conte told journalists as he arrived at the summit.
“It’s a possibility I hope not to consider, but if we reach that point, on my behalf we will not have shared conclusions,” he added.
Rome has recently refused to allow several migrant rescue boats dock at Italian ports, reviving fresh tensions despite the fact that numbers of arrivals have dipped sharply since the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.
“Europe faces many challenges, but that of migration could become the make-or-break one for the EU,” Merkel told German parliament on Thursday.
Either we manage it, so others in Africa believe that we are guided by values and believe in multilateralism, not unilateralism, or nobody will believe any longer in the system of values that has made us strong
“That’s why it’s so important.”
A June deadline to reach an agreement over asylum seekers has passed, but a solution still remains out of reach.
During the meeting, the leaders will possibly talk about reforms to the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to apply for asylum in the country they first arrive.
Other issues, such as a joint migration deal and agreeing on countries’ responsibilities will also be on the table.
Offshore processing centres
One of the most heavily criticised topics will be that of so-called “disembarkation platforms”, offshore processing centres to screen refugees in countries such as Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.
Italy’s newly elected government has been one of the main proponents of that plan in an attempt to minimise the number of people that arrive in the Mediterranean country.
In recent weeks, the country has denied rescue ships carrying refugees and migrants to dock at Italian ports.
One of the ships, the Aquarius, was forced to go to Spain in order to let the people off the ship.
The other one, the Lifeline, arrived in Malta earlier on Wednesday, but only after nearly a week being stuck at sea while EU leaders argued about the fate of the people on board.
The humanitarian ship docked in the Maltese capital, Valletta, but only after eight countries agreed to take a share of the 234 refugees and migrants on board.
Italy has joined other European countries such as Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, who have heavily criticised the EU for its attempt to distribute refugees evenly among EU members.
The alarmist attitude displayed by some of the European countries comes despite a sharp drop in the refugee arrivals this year.
The UN refugee agency expects 80,000 people to arrive by sea this year, which is about half the number from 2017.
Criticism from her allies
Not only do Merkel’s comments serve as a lead-in to Thursday’s summit, they also are an attempt to address criticism from within her own coalition government and party.
Over the last couple of weeks, a vocal group of critics has emerged from within Merkel’s CDU party who do not agree with her policy decisions on the refugee crisis.
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.
Seehofer has said he would give Merkel until after the EU summit to come up with a European solution.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said last week 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.
Several other European leaders have criticised the anti-refugee stance some EU countries are now taking, including French President Emmanuel Macron who said nationalism and anti-migrant sentiments were spreading in Europe like “leprosy”.
Last week, an emergency meeting was held between European leaders in preparation of Thursday’s summit.
That meeting, which failed to reach any conclusive results, was boycotted by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.