BRUSSELS: More than half of the European Union’s leaders meet in Brussels Sunday to grapple with a resurgent political crisis over migration that threatens to tear the bloc apart.
The 16 heads of government and state are responding to alarm about growing rifts not only among the EU’s 28 members but also within the German government itself, the bloc’s most powerful.
As tensions rise between Rome and Paris as well as Rome and Berlin, the top-level talks are designed to help clear the heavy air for a previously scheduled full summit of all EU leaders on Thursday and Friday.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has conceded “no solution will be reached” on the overall migration issue at either summit.
This is despite a sharp decrease in migrant arrivals since their peak in 2015, when more than one million Syrian asylum-seekers and others entered the bloc.
Political developments in Italy, a major migrant landing point, and in wealthy Germany, their top destination, have brought the EU’s political crisis back.
Since assuming office several weeks ago, Italy’s new populist government has refused to admit foreign-flagged rescue ships packed with hundreds of migrants.
After turning away the Aquarius, which later docked in Spain, Rome vowed Saturday to block the Lifeline, a German charity vessel with more than 230 people aboard.
Reflecting popular anger over the failure of EU member states for years to shoulder more of the migrant burden, Rome has pledged not to take in one more asylum-seeker.
Italy’s stance has raised tension both with Germany and within Merkel’s coalition government, with EU diplomats saying the mini-summit is to help “save” the chancellor.
With a populist backlash over her initial open-door policy toward asylum-seekers, Merkel emerged weakened in recent elections.
Now facing a political crisis, Merkel’s new hardline interior minister Horst Seehofer has given her until the end of June to find a European deal to curb new arrivals.
If that fails, he vowed to order border police to turn back migrants, which means many will likely have to return to Italy.
Under the so-called Dublin rules, asylum-seekers must be processed in the country where they first arrive, often Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece and Spain.
EU leaders last December had set the end of June as a deadline to reform the rules by establishing a permanent mechanism to relocate asylum-seekers throughout the bloc.
With such reform elusive, Merkel is now pushing for bilateral, trilateral and multilateral deals.
Merkel also got Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to attend the mini-summit by telling him pre-written conclusions had been withdrawn, Italian officials said.
Draft conclusions included calls to speed up returns to countries tasked with processing them, such as Italy.
Rome on Saturday accused French President Emmanuel Macron of ‘arrogance’ for turning back migrants at the French-Italian border and minimising Italy’s problem.
France’s human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon also criticised the French response to the Aquarius crisis, telling the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that the migrants should have been allowed to enter the country.
Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, due in Brussels Sunday, also proposed closed centres in arrival countries to hold asylum-seekers until claims are processed.
EU diplomats and sources said the talks due to begin at 3 pm will also tackle how to strengthen the bloc’s external borders, where consensus exists.
EU cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main transit countries, have sharply cut, at least for now, the flow of migrants to Europe since 2015.
The leaders are also to discuss proposals for reception centres outside the bloc to separate genuine war refugees from economic migrants, who can be sent home.
But with fears of new migrant surges in the future, diplomats warn the asylum reform impasse could destroy the EU’s signature Schengen system of borderless travel.
“The situation is risky,” a diplomat said.
Rounding out the 16 leaders, EU officials said, are those from Austria, Greece, Malta, Bulgaria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Luxembourg.
Seehofer is allied with Austria’s hardline chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country on July 1 takes over from Bulgaria the six-month rotating EU presidency.
Staying away are the hardline leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who have for years opposed migration.