EU mini-summit fails to reach ‘concrete conclusions’ ahead of main event

Italy took centre stage, rejecting a draft statement proposed by Berlin and calling for a “comprehensive” continent-wide solution.
Monday 25/06/2018
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, right, speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during an informal EU summit on migration at EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 24. (AP)
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, right, speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during an informal EU summit on migration at EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 24. (AP)

LONDON - An emergency migration summit held over the weekend saw little progress ahead of a crunch EU summit June 28-29. 

Billed as an informal “mini-summit” ahead of the main event later this week, the weekend gathering in Brussels included representatives of 16 European countries, including Germany, whose coalition government is sharply divided over migration and asylum issues.

Despite a sharp drop in the number of migrants to Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces criticism at home over her handling of the issue. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, leader of Merkel’s coalition partner the Christian Social Union (CSU), set a two-week deadline for her to outline a policy on asylum-seekers arriving from other EU states. The deadline ends following the upcoming EU summit.

The weekend gathering was first thought to be geared towards Merkel securing bilateral deals with EU leaders that would allow for asylum-seekers to be sent back to their first EU entry point, but Italy quickly took centre stage, rejecting a draft statement proposed by Berlin and calling for a “comprehensive” continent-wide solution.

The current policy, dubbed the Dublin Regulation, states that asylum seekers must be processed in the first EU member state they enter. However, critics argue this overly burdens so-called front-line countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain. 

Italy is taking a more hard-line approach to migrants and asylum-seekers following the election of a populist government that includes the far-right, anti-migrant, League party. Earlier this month, Rome closed its ports to a migrant ship seeking entry, and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the League party, said Italy would no longer be “Europe’s refugee camp" and called for a complete reform of the Dublin Regulation. 

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte presented a 10-point plan to reform migration and asylum during the mini-summit. He called on all EU member states to share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea and for countries to be docked EU funds if they refuse to take in refugees.

The new plan -- the European Multilevel Strategy for Migration -- which Conte said would ensure a “sustainable and effective” migration policy, would take precedence over the Dublin Regulation in governing asylum cases.

The text calls for “shared responsibility among member states” in dealing with migrants who arrive by sea. “We can’t take everyone to Italy and Spain,” the document says. It also envisions the establishment of so-called “reception centres” in several European countries, possibly including Albania, and in North Africa. 

“We have steered the debate that is under way in the right direction,” Conte said in a tweet following the summit.

The Italian plan overshadowed Merkel’s attempts to secure her own agreements and shore up support at home.

Speaking to reporters after the mini-summit, Merkel reiterated the importance of “bilateral and trilateral agreements” in reaching “common ground,” while indicating she was not prepared to wait for full consensus among the EU’s 28 member states before pressing ahead with reform.

“Unfortunately, we won’t have a comprehensive solution to the migration problem at the European Council,” Merkel said. “So it’s also about bilateral or trilateral agreements, about how we can help each other — not always to have to wait for all 28, but to consider what is important to whom.”

French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to agree with Merkel’s approach, telling reporters that “it can be cooperation between the 28 or cooperation between some states who decide between themselves.”

EU leaders downplayed signs of division despite clear displays of tension throughout the meeting. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said the talks had been “frank and open,” but did not result in “any concrete consequences or conclusions.”

The EU’s main event in Brussels on June 28-29 will be more consequential for Merkel’s teetering coalition government, and could help define the migration and asylum policy of the entire EU for years to come.