BRUSSELS • EU leaders convened in Brussels for emergency talks yesterday over migration as Italy's new populist Cabinet turned away another rescue ship, vowing to no longer shoulder Europe's migrant burden.
The talks involving 16 of the bloc's 28 leaders aimed to mend rifts over burden-sharing, and also to shore up German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pressed by her own government to tighten her liberal approach to asylum.
The meeting was called last week to clear the air before a scheduled full summit this Thursday and Friday. But with four eastern anti-migrant EU countries snubbing it, Dr Merkel and other leaders have downplayed hopes of an EU-wide agreement, saying smaller ad hoc deals may be the only way forward.
"We discuss this here in view of the European Council. But we know that at the European Council, unfortunately, we will not have a complete solution of the migration issue. That is why there will be bilateral and trilateral agreements, how can we help each other - not always wait for all 28 members, but think about what is important to whom," Dr Merkel said as she arrived for the meeting.
The urgency of finding a solution was highlighted by the plight of the Lifeline, the second rescue vessel left adrift in the Mediterranean after Italy and neighbouring Malta refused it permission to dock.
In a sign of the growing tensions within the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested last Saturday that countries that refused to pull their weight on accepting asylum-seekers should have their EU benefits cut, in a dig at Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
The four former communist states, who ducked out of yesterday's talks, have long been opposed to taking in migrants.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the meeting yesterday, Mr Macron said: "The method we are going to adopt this afternoon, the one that France has pushed for in the past weeks, aims at working together regarding the origin or transit countries that are out of the EU. We have actually started doing it, which brought the first results. We are going to continue, with Libya, other African countries, Balkans or Asia."
Mr Macron had riled Italy, the main landing point for African migrants, by saying that the migration emergency, which peaked in 2015, had passed and was now mainly a political issue. "The immigration emergency continues in Italy, partly because France keeps pushing back people at the border," Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio shot back on his Facebook page, warning that Mr Macron risked turning France into "Italy's No. 1 enemy" on the issue.
Reflecting popular anger over the failure of EU members to shoulder more of the migrant burden, Rome has pledged not to take in any more asylum-seekers. Its stance has raised tension both with Germany and within Dr Merkel's coalition government, with EU diplomats saying the mini-summit is to help "save" the Chancellor.
In Dr Merkel's latest crisis, her new hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has given her until the end of the month to find a European deal to curb new arrivals. If that fails, he has vowed to order border police to turn back migrants.
Dr Merkel convinced a reluctant Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to attend yesterday's talks by telling him pre-written conclusions had been withdrawn, Italian officials said. The draft conclusions included calls to speed up returns to countries tasked with processing them, causing anger in Rome.
Arriving at the summit, Mr Conte told reporters: "We are here to present the Italian proposal, a completely new Italian proposal based on a new paradigm on the issue of migration."
The leaders are also to discuss proposals for centres in countries outside the bloc to separate genuine war refugees from economic migrants, who can be sent home.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday the alliance was prepared to help out in troubled Libya as it grapples with a migrant crisis, but warned there were no military solutions.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS