Migration moves centre stage at Brussels EU summit
Euro zone reform and US relations lead agenda in absence of clear Brexit proposals
German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the Council of the European Union on the first day of the European Council leaders’ summit on Thursday. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to the Brussels EU summit with dire warnings that the future of the union could hinge on whether it can find answers to the “vital questions” posed by migration.
EU leaders were only too well aware that she was also talking about her own future, but Council president Donald Tusk echoed her sentiment. Failing to grasp the nettle on migration, he told journalists, would be a “manifestation of our weakness”.
Arriving at the meeting in belligerent form, Merkel’s bête noire, Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte was warning of the “possibility” that he could yet veto summit conclusions on migration.
His populist rhetoric found an echo in the words of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán.
He asserted on arrival that “this is the right time to launch a new period when we try to reconstruct the European democracy and I hope we will do what the people really request: First, no more migration in, and we should bring back those who are in.”
Two months ago it appeared that Brexit would dominate the agenda, but the absence of clear British proposals on the backstop mean that the leaders today will do little more than hear a state-of-play report from chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Migration, eurozone reform and relations with the US have moved centre stage.
The focus of the dinner debate was the two dimensions of the migration story: those arriving at Europe’s shores, mainly Italy these days, and those moving on from EU frontline states to other states.
Attempts to deal with the latter – by amending the EU’s asylum rules, the Dublin regulation – have largely stalled on the refusal, re-affirmed last night by countries like Hungary, to accept any mandatory burden sharing or quotas.
In the circumstances, Germany’s response to secondary migration has been to suggest that rather than close its borders, it will negotiate bilateral deals, lubricated by cash, with countries willing to hold on to refugees that arrive on their shores.
But on the external borders issue leaders were able to take some of the pressure off the Chancellor by backing an agreement to explore the idea of “disembarkation platforms” in north Africa, funded by the EU, where rescued migrants would be landed for processing instead of at European ports. These are “not camps”, several leaders insisted.
To date, however, none of the north African states are volunteering.
The idea, not unlike the €6 billion EU-Turkey deal, is to convince migrants that there is no point in setting off for Europe where they will not be allowed to land. Dutch PM Mark Rutte said a priority was to “kill the business model of these cynical boat smugglers in the Mediterranean”.
“What we need is more European action and more European money and investment to build institutions, provide security and provide economic opportunity in Africa,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told leaders.
“And as a result of that, Ireland is agreeing to treble our commitment to the EU Africa Trust fund to €15 million, and that’ll be the third largest commitment per capita of any EU country.” He said Ireland would also be supporting the strengthening of the EU’s border force.