German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told European Union countries to tackle racist attitudes within the bloc, and said that no member state can avoid the “challenge” migration poses.
She made the comments on Saturday after being welcomed in Spain by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, in a visit taking place as a migrant-exchange deal between the two countries came into effect.
After their meeting, held in the Donana natural reserve in the southern region of Andalusia, the two leaders promoted a shared approach to immigration into the bloc amid increasing populist opposition in some countries to taking in more people seeking asylum.
They also said they will share a common vision at an EU summit in Austria next month.
“We are just a few kilometres from the African coast, similar to Malta or Sicily, so this is a challenge we must cope with together and no country can dodge this task,” Merkel said at a press conference, renewing calls for a “fair distribution” of refugees and migrants across the bloc.
“The racist tendencies we are seeing, regrettably, in all member countries is something we have to fight against.”
Spain this year has become the main destination for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa, amid a crackdown by Libyan authorities and a more hardline approach to immigration in Italy since the inauguration of its new government.
Last week, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said 23,500 people had arrived in Spain by sea, compared to about 18,500 in Italy and 16,000 in Greece.
“Fourteen kilometres separate the coast of Spain – and therefore Europe – from those of North Africa but there is an infinitely greater distance in terms of development,” Sanchez told reporters.
“Reducing the depth of this abyss of inequality must be one of the main tasks of the European Union.”
Merkel and Sanchez have agreed to push for greater help from the EU for countries such as Morocco, one of the main points of departure for people wanting to reach Europe.
Sanchez said the two leaders were in discussion with the European Commission to unlock aid that would allow Morocco to be more effective in controlling their borders.
“We have to intensify our support for Morocco and Tunisia,” Merkel said. “They are border countries and they need our help.”
The two leaders met on the same day that a bilateral deal on immigration between the countries came into effect.
Under the deal, Madrid agreed to take back migrants arriving in Germany after registering in Spain.
Spain is the first EU country to sign such an agreement, while Merkel is seeking similar arrangements with Greece and Italy after recently coming under severe pressure from her interior minister Horst Seehofer.
In June, a dispute over immigration between Seehofer and Merkel nearly brought an end to the chancellor’s 13-year-long rule.
Seehofer wanted to start turning away migrants at the German border who had already registered elsewhere in the EU – a policy Merkel had explicitly disagreed with.
The hardened stances on immigration in a number of European countries comes amid a significant downturn of migrants and refugees arriving on the continent.
By the end of July, 62,459 people had arrived by sea and land according to UNHCR figures. In 2015, more than 225,000 people arrived in the same period.