Brussels – The leaders of 16 EU countries stressed their willingness to find a common solution for the bloc’s long-standing migration debate as their meeting ended with no concrete decisions on Sunday.
The leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is under pressure in Germany to move forward on the issue, vowed to continue working towards a solution in the coming days, as all EU leaders are set to hold a summit on Thursday and Friday.
“We will continue to work on resolving these issues,” Merkel said. “There was a lot of good will to do this today, and apart from a few differences, there was a great deal of unity.”
Pressure on Merkel grows
The simmering debate on migration and asylum policy – which the European Union has been trying to overhaul since the 2015 migrant crisis – was thrust back into the public debate in recent week, partly due to growing demands on Merkel at home.
She is being challenged by her interior minister and long-time ally, Horst Seehofer, who is threatening to introduce unilateral controls at Germany’s borders.
Merkel said that she did not expect a “total solution to the problem of migration” to be found at the EU summit next week.
“That is why it’s about [finding] bilateral or trilateral agreements that are mutually beneficial,” Merkel said.
She said this way countries wouldn’t “always have to wait for all 28” to find a solution.
She stressed the need for solidarity, saying, “We cannot leave the countries of arrival alone, because that would mean that they have to solve all the problems alone.”
Refugee Routes to the EU
But she warned that refugees could not “choose which EU country should process their asylum application.”
Besides the political situation in Germany, the migration issue has been high on the agenda since the new Italian government took office.
Italy closed its ports last week to a boat carrying more than 600 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Sunday that Italy wanted “radical change” to the EU migration policy.
The Dublin rule, according to which migrants must apply for asylum in the EU country that they first entered, should be completely overhauled, he said.
With a new Italian proposal called the “European Multilevel Strategy for Migration,” the country “wants to tackle the problem in a structured way, because that is what public opinion is telling us,” Conte said.
Under the 10-point proposal, seen by dpa, migrants should not even arrive in Europe, which would make movement of asylum seekers within the EU “incidental.”
Strengthening the protection of the EU’s external borders
In cooperation with the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, refugee protection centres in transit countries should be set up to examine asylum applications there.
Italy also proposed stepping up the protection of the EU’s external borders. Those rescued at sea should be distributed to reception centres throughout the EU.
“We cannot bring everyone to Italy or Spain,” the paper said.
Conte said that he was returning to Rome “pleased” after the meeting. “We have set the ongoing debate on the right direction,” he said.
However, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said that much of Italy’s proposal has been put forward before.
“I think that most of these proposals were proposals that we already tried to implement,” Tsipras said.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who warned of an escalation in the migration row, said that EU countries are “probably” willing to implement changes to the way the bloc handles migration.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the EU must stick to its values when tackling the issue of migration, noting that illegal migration must be fought in a “humane and methodical way.”
Leaders of the so-called Visegrad group countries – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – did not attend the meeting.
All four Visegrad countries fiercely oppose the EU scheme from 2015 to redistribute asylum seekers across the bloc.