Refugee issue dominates informal talks ahead of EU summit

France calls for penalties for countries rejecting migrants with proven asylum status

As Italy and Malta again turned back a shipful of 239 rescued refugees, European leaders from 17 member states met on Sunday in Brussels hoping against hope to save both this week's EU summit and the political skin of Germany's leader.

The result of four hours of talks was largely inconclusive, diplomats said, setting the scene for difficult but potentially productive discussions at Thursday's summit, according to Belgian prime minister Charles Michel.

The informal emergency meeting on the migration crisis, called by commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at chancellor Angela Merkel's request, was an attempt to broker a compromise and burden sharing between deeply divided states like frontline recipients Italy and Greece, and others like Germany, needing to show angry domestic audiences they are doing something to stem the flow of asylum-seeking migrants.

Ireland was not represented at the meeting.

Italy on Thursday turned away German NGO ship the Lifeline which has been waiting in limbo after picking up 239 people between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italy's new government has banned NGO migrant rescue ships from docking at its ports and urged Malta to take in the Lifeline. On Saturday, anti-immigrant interior minister and deputy premier Matteo Salvini said migrant rescue ships could "forget about reaching Italy, I want to stop the business of trafficking and Mafia".

Pressure on Merkel

The German chancellor came to the meeting under huge pressure from her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who has given her until the end of June to curb new migrant arrivals. Failing that, he has promised to turn back migrants at the border, which means many will probably have to return to Italy under the so-called Dublin regulations.

Such a move could also lead to the collapse of the Schengen border-free system and could bring down the German governing coalition. Leaving, Dr Merkel acknowledged that they were not yet at an agreement.

Under the Dublin rules, asylum seekers must be processed in the country where they first arrive, often Italy, Greece or Spain. Italy's new government was on Sunday demanding reform of the Dublin regulations to require mandatory burden-sharing of the care for refugees arriving on their shores.

With those countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – which are refusing to accept mandatory quotas boycotting Sunday's informal meeting, there was never much prospect that it could come up with a compromise on Dublin before Thursday. Whether, as a demonstration of Dr Merkel's good endeavour, it will be sufficient for Mr Seehoffer is unclear.

The meeting ended without the standard “conclusions” document but will send an agreed list of issues discussed to the summit.

On Saturday, France's President Emmanuel Macron made it clear compromise was some way off. He said that states that benefited from the EU yet considered only their own self-interest when it came to taking in migrants with proven asylum status should face financial penalties.

"You can't have countries that massively benefit from the solidarity of the European Union and that massively voice their national selfishness when it comes to migrant issues," he told a press conference in Paris alongside new Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez.

‘European vision’

Mr Sanchez agreed. After the meeting he said there was still much work to do but that there was a clear, common understanding of the need for a “European vision” to deal with the challenge.

On his way in to Sunday’s meeting, Mr Macron said “The solution we must find is a European solution that can only be built through co-operation among the European Union member states. Whether it’s co-operation among the 28 or among several states deciding to go forward together. On that topic, co-operation requires everybody’s responsibility and a spirit of solidarity to share the burden and the pressure that some are under.”

But Italy's deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio said his words showed he was out of touch with reality. "Italy indeed faces a migration emergency and it's partly because France keeps pushing back people at the border. Macron risks making his country Italy's No 1 enemy on this emergency," Mr Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page.

About 41,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2018, and 960 people are confirmed or suspected to have died, according to the latest data from the International Organisation for Migration. The arrival figures are 51 per cent down on last year and 81 per cent down on 2016.

Meanwhile it has emerged that no African country has yet agreed to host offshore EU migrant screening centres on its soil. Commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos announced EU plans for "regional disembarkation centres" in Brussels last Thursday.

One of the demands being made by the Italians on Sunday was that such centres should also be set up in EU member states.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times