European Leaders Fail To Bridge Divisions Over Fate of Migrants

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European leaders on Sunday failed to reach a deal on a new approach to immigration, as German leader Angela Merkel fights for her political life.

Under pressure over an open-door policy which brought over 1 million migrants to Germany over the past three years, Ms. Merkel is seeking to limit the number of migrants entering the country, renewing tensions over who should take in refugees.

Ms. Merkel said an emergency meeting Sunday among 16 EU leaders was good but that differences remain. “Traffickers and refugees cannot choose in which EU countries they file for asylum,” she said.

Heading into the meeting, she said she sought arrangements with other EU countries to address the migration issue. Germany’s goal is to return some of the migrants who arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, according to European diplomats.

But Italy’s new nationalist government, which has pledged to stop mass migration to the country, refused such a deal. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared himself “definitely satisfied” with the outcome of the meeting.

“Merkel is going home empty-handed. There is no deal with Rome to accept asylum seekers that Germany would reject at the border,” said one senior diplomat.

Still, Ms. Merkel and the leaders of Malta and Belgium, who took part in the Sunday meeting, said “operational measures” could be agreed to in the run-up to or during a meeting of all 28 EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

Ms. Merkel’s woes didn’t go unnoticed by her peers. French President Emmanuel Macron said that the current migration crisis was “due to political pressure in certain member states,” while Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said jokingly that the meeting was “not about whether Ms. Merkel stays chancellor next week or not.”

Leaders focused their discussions on areas they could all agree on—expanding the funding and mandate of the bloc’s border-control agency and striking more deals with African countries to take back and stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean in the first place.

The meeting was called by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch in charge of drafting policies and funding the bloc’s border and asylum agencies. Mr. Juncker was in Berlin earlier this past week and offered to host the meeting in an attempt to help Ms. Merkel after she narrowly avoided the collapse of her government.

The German chancellor had rejected a plan by her coalition partner to start turning away migrants at the German-Austrian border and was given a two-week deadline to find a European solution.

Austria, sandwiched between Germany and Italy, said such a unilateral move would force it to start sending asylum seekers back to Italy.

In parallel to Ms. Merkel’s woes, tensions escalated between France and Italy, with Mr. Macron accusing Rome of playing up the crisis even though migrant numbers are down compared with previous years. In response, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, responded that France should open its ports to ships that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean and stop sending back migrants over the Franco-Italian land border.

Three ships, including a Maersk cargo ship that rescued over 100 migrants off the Italian coast, in recent days have been denied access to Italian ports. One ship was eventually taken in by Spain, while the destination of the other two is still unclear.

Mr. Macron rejected the Italian proposals and said his country “won’t take lessons from anyone,” as it ranked second in the EU after Germany in 2017 in terms of the number of asylum requests granted. But that same year, Italy received more asylum applications than France, according to Eurostat, the bloc’s statistics office.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia didn’t take part in Sunday’s meeting, saying the EU proposals were “unacceptable.”

The European Commission, in an attempt to alleviate Italian concerns about a steady flow of boats from Libya, said it was considering so-called disembarkation platforms in North African countries, meaning safe areas to which migrants rescued at sea could be sent back. Most migrants who arrived in Europe last year and in the first half of this year crossed the Mediterranean from Libya or were rescued at sea and brought to Italy.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration criticized the idea and said they would only cooperate with the commission on setting up migrant camps on EU soil.

“You have an obligation not to send people back until they land somewhere,” said Eugenio Ambrosi, director of the IOM’s regional EU office.

Mr. Macron also said Saturday that Europe shouldn’t outsource its asylum process to North Africa, but rather set up migrant centers on EU soil with enough experts to quickly assess who has the right to stay.

Mr. Salvini responded that “if French arrogance thinks it can transform Italy into Europe’s refugee camp, maybe handing out a few euros as a tip, then they’ve got it totally wrong.”

Write to Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 25, 2018, print edition as ‘EU Talks on Migrants Stall.’

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