An emergency mini summit Sunday of EU leaders seeking a common solution on migration yielded a breakthrough, of sorts: a general agreement to stop seeking an overall, common solution.
It was not exactly a failure, with leaders hailing new momentum in addressing the bloc’s most divisive political problem, and a commitment to continue their discussion at a regular EU summit later this week.
But the talks did not deliver any immediate prize for Germany’s Angela Merkel, who is under pressure at home, where her Bavarian coalition partners are demanding tougher border enforcement policies.
“Wherever possible we want to find European solutions, where this is not possible we want to bring those who are willing together and develop a common framework for action,” the chancellor said as she left the summit.
Other leaders were more blunt about the lack of any concrete outcome.
“Today we didn’t take decisions,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told reporters on his way out.
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Still, that did not stop officials in the senior echelon of the European Commission, which hosted the mini summit, from quickly summarizing Sunday’s discussion into a potpourri of policy proposals and firing off an e-mail message at 9:18 p.m, urging the European Council to rewrite its draft conclusions on migration for the formal leaders’ summit later this week — the latest salvo in a running institutional fight over how best to manage the issue.
Merkel had arrived at European Commission headquarters stressing the need for “bilateral or trilateral agreements,” in the absence of a broader consensus among all 28 EU nations, which she plainly declared did not yet exist.
But after roughly four hours of discussions, she didn’t announce any new agreement like the deal she struck last week with President Emmanuel Macron, who agreed to take back any asylum applicants registered in France who cross illegally into Germany.
Merkel seemed intent on addressing Rome’s complaint that she puts her domestic imperatives ahead of Italy’s struggle to deal with a flood of migrants.
“We all agree that we have to stop illegal immigration and that we have to secure our borders, and that we are all responsible for all topics,” Merkel said as she left. “It can’t be that some countries only care about primary migration, and others about secondary migration.”
Nonetheless, the diverging priorities of different EU nations were on clear display at the meeting. Tsipras, lending support to Italy as a fellow frontier country, urged leaders to recognize that secondary movement — in which asylum seekers cross internal EU borders after making their initial application — is not a concern for Greece. “Our northern borders are unilaterally closed,” he said inside the meeting, according to a Greek official.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who arrived declaring he would deliver a “completely new proposal,” left without addressing the press. Other leaders said his proposal, which focused on easing the burden of frontier countries, was well-received but would require more study.
“The prime minister presented his plan in the meeting, and there are many things that were included in the conversation, and others he just shared with us his views, his opinion,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said. “And of course we just received that proposal and we are going to study it.”
Sanchez, attending his first major EU meeting, said “everyone agreed on the need to have a European vision.”
But if there was agreement on the need for a European vision, there was also recognition that it was virtually impossible to achieve unanimity, particularly among Central European nations like Hungary and Poland that adamantly refuse to accept refugees as part of an EU relocation system.
EU leaders have been struggling for the better part of three years to resolve seriously divisive disagreements over refugee and migration policy.
The EU mini summit was called at the behest of Merkel, who faces an acute crisis at home over tough new border control policies being pushed by Horst Seehofer, her interior minister and the leader of her coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Merkel bought herself time in the crisis by convincing Seehofer to wait until after the European Council this week so she could pursue a broader, European solution. But her plan for a mini summit caused yet another brouhaha because the Commission initially put forward a draft leaders’ statement that infuriated Italy, and prompted Conte to threaten to boycott the gathering. At Merkel’s urging, the draft text was dropped, and Conte agreed to attend.
Partnerships of the willing
After Sunday’s meeting there appeared to be consensus, at least among most of the 16 leaders who attended, that the challenges would be better tackled with partnerships among willing nations, rather than waiting for unanimity among all 28. That suggested a watershed realization: At times the best way to preserve EU unity may be to forego seeking EU unity.
One senior official who attended Sunday’s meeting said Merkel’s position was remarkably altered from 2015, when she pushed hard for an all-EU solution to the migration crisis.
“This time Merkel was not in the position of coming here with an European solution because she had first to settle the situation at home,” the official said. “It’s something that leaders start to feel.”
Instead, Merkel stressed the need to strengthen partnerships with countries outside the EU, citing the EU agreement with Turkey, which she characterized as a success.
“We want to develop further agreements with countries of origin,” Merkel said. “Member states will divide up the work; some will do the work for all of Europe.” She also called for greater control of external and internal EU borders.
“Smugglers and refugees cannot choose in which of the European member states they turn in their asylum applications,” she said.
But it was Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who summed up Sunday’s mini summit best. “The issue,” he said, “is still not solved.”
Vassili Golod and Andrew Gray contributed reporting.