Arriving at an emergency EU mini-summit on migration, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would put forward a “completely new proposal” for managing Europe’s most divisive political issue.
Conte said the proposal, the “European Multilevel Strategy for Migration,” would “completely overtake” the EU’s Dublin agreement on handling asylum cases, which EU member countries have been trying to reach agreement on reforming for years.
Such an ambitious and comprehensive approach stood in marked contrast to the priorities of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pushed for the mini-summit in Brussels to try to ease severe tensions with her Bavarian coalition partners. On her way into the summit, Merkel made clear she was looking for quick agreements among small blocs of countries to avoid having to seek a deal acceptable to all of the EU’s 28 members.
Italy’s new populist government, however, has made clear that it will not abide leaders focusing on Germany’s main priority — the movement of migrants across the EU’s internal borders — without addressing longstanding Italian concerns over how to better manage the initial arrivals of refugees.
“I’m here to put forward an Italian proposal … completely new,” Conte said. He said the plan consisted of six points and 10 goals to set a “sustainable and effective” migration policy. He said it would “completely overtake the Dublin agreement” because public opinion had demanded it.
The text of the Italian proposal calls for “shared responsibility among member states” when it comes to handling migrants who arrive by sea at the EU’s external borders. “We can’t take everyone to Italy and Spain,” the document states, envisaging “reception centers in several European countries.”
The mini-summit at the European Commission, just days before a regular summit of EU leaders, was called at the behest of Merkel, who has faced an acute political crisis at home over tough new border control policies being pushed by Horst Seehofer, her interior minister and the leader of her coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Merkel bought herself time in the crisis by convincing Seehofer to wait until after the European Council summit this week so she could pursue a broader, European solution to the border concerns. But her plan for a mini-summit caused yet another brouhaha because the Commission initially put forward a draft leaders’ statement that infuriated Italy, and prompted Conte to threaten to boycott the gathering. At Merkel’s urging, the draft text was dropped, and Conte agreed to attend.
Arriving at the Commission headquarters, Merkel seemed worn down by her troubles — in contrast to some of her younger fellow leaders, who appeared brimming with energy.
Speaking to reporters, Merkel stressed the need for “bilateral and trilateral agreements” and “common ground” — an important indication that she was not prepared to wait for full consensus among the EU’s 28 nations before pressing ahead with new policies that would ease the political tensions at home.
“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.”
Merkel remains the bloc’s most influential leader but she has seemed badly weakened in recent days by the political challenge at home. In some ways, merely moving the conversation to Brussels from Berlin was a significant victory for her.
She said Sunday’s discussion would focus on areas clearly of concern to Italy and other frontier nations on “how can we better protect external borders and reduce illegal migration” but also on secondary movements and protecting the Schengen common travel area.
“How do we deal fairly and honestly with each other in the Schengen area?” she said, citing the key questions to be addressed. “How can we achieve a fair balance in the Schengen area?”
As leaders arrived in Brussels on a cool, sunny, Sunday afternoon, they seemed rather relaxed given the “emergency” nature of their meeting, and the deep divisions that the migration issues has sowed — particularly between hardline Central European countries, like Hungary, that have refused to accept any refugees and frontier countries like Italy that have struggled to cope with the influx of migrants, even as numbers have declined precipitously since the height of the crisis in 2015.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel even swatted back a question from a reporter who suggested the migration issue was tearing the EU apart. “Why should it destroy the EU?” he asked in English with some disapproval in his voice.
“As soon as we meet, you think that we are going to destroy something. We need to discuss. I think it’s the most important part to be able to exchange,” he said.
Bettel noted a recent letter from the U.N. offering cooperation in overseeing some of the worst trouble areas regarding arrivals of migrants and refugees, and he insisted that leaders were committed to finding a joint strategy.
“We are discussing,” Bettel said. “I think it’s time now and with the letter we got from the U.N. to work on hotspots and to be able to have them also under the supervision of the U.N.” He added, “So, we, even if it takes time, we all are convinced that we need common solutions. There is no national solution and for the moment we see every country trying to find their own solution. This is not really the Europe I want. We need to find common solutions, because it’s not a national problem but a European problem.”
After Seehofer threatened tougher German border controls, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz raised the possibility of an Austrian response that would reimpose border checks at the sensitive Brenner Pass, on Austria’s southern border with Germany.
The possibility of EU nations suddenly engaged in an escalating contest over toughened border enforcement policies was among the reasons leaders felt they could not wait for the regular European Council summit to initiate a renewed conversation on migration.
“It’s obvious that the situation is extremely precarious,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on arrival for the mini-summit. “I don’t think it’s time for finger-pointing. I do think people are looking at us to find solutions.”