EU leaders defended a hard-won migration deal agreed after marathon talks yesterday that Italy hailed as a breakthrough, despite emerging doubts on whether bloc partners would shoulder more responsibility for migrants.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who heads a month-old anti-immigration government, had vetoed joint conclusions for the entire agenda of the summit in Brussels until his demands were finally met before dawn.
“Today Italy is no longer alone. We are satisfied,” Conte told reporters following nine hours of talks described as “virulent.”
The 28 leaders agreed to consider setting up “disembarkation platforms” outside the bloc, most likely in North Africa, in a bid to discourage migrants from boarding EU-bound smuggler boats.
Member nations could also set up migrant processing centers — but only on a voluntary basis — to determine whether the arrivals should be returned home as economic migrants or admitted as refugees in willing states.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron said that these new-style centers would be reserved for nations on key migrant routes such as Malta, Italy, Spain or Greece, not France.
“France is not a country of first arrival. Some want to push us to that and I refused it,” he said as he arrived for a second day of talks.
Asked if Austria would open a center, Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz said: “Of course not... We are not a first arrival country, unless people jump from parachutes.”
In their deal, the leaders made an offer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces a rebellion from within her own coalition government, with moves to stop migrants registered in Italy and elsewhere in the EU from moving to Germany.
Merkel faces an end-of-month deadline from her own minister of the interior to curb so-called “secondary migration.”
The summit conclusions called on member nations to take “all necessary” steps to stop migrants from moving on to Germany.
Merkel welcomed the move, but acknowledged the hard work needed with some hard choices left for later.
“I am optimistic after today that we can now really continue to work, although we have a lot to do, even bridging the different views,” she said.
The Italian government demanded “concrete action” from other nations to help in the same way that it had after it refused to admit the rescue ships Aquarius, which later docked in Spain, and Lifeline, which went to Malta.
However, Belgium, which took in 15 Lifeline migrants, said that the gesture would not be repeated until Europeans had reformed the bloc’s asylum rules.
Known as the Dublin regulation, the rules say that migrants must be dealt with by the first country in which they arrive.
“When Dublin is reformed, we will get solidarity. For now, the first-line countries are meeting their responsibilities,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.
However, the leaders failed to agree on long-stalled plans to overhaul Dublin that include a permanent quota to share migrants arriving in Italy and Greece around all other EU nations.
Former communist countries in eastern Europe, particularly the populist governments of Hungary and Poland, implacably opposed the plan and said that the deal had buried the idea forever.
“Quotas were an issue for four years and now everyone has dropped the topic. It was a big fight... It’s a big success,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.
Organizations that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea were furious at the deal.
“EU member states are abdicating their responsibility to save lives and are deliberately condemning people to be trapped in Libya or die at sea,” Medecins Sans Frontiers said in a statement.
Talks resumed two hours later than scheduled yesterday morning, with the leaders discussing the state of the Brexit negotiations.
The statement, warning of the risks of a messy, no-deal divorce, was approved in less than a minute, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.
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