EU leaders gathered in Brussels on Thursday, under pressure to deliver progress in a long-running debate on migration, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the issue could determine the future of the bloc.
The two-day summit may prove to be pivotal for the European Union, as continued discord about migration threatens to further entrench already deep fault lines and endanger EU unity at a time of increased tension from Russia and fraying relations with the United States.
“Europe has many challenges, but the migration issue could become a question of the fate of the EU,” Merkel told German lawmakers before departing for Brussels.
The issue could also prove decisive for Merkel, who has been handed an end-of-June ultimatum by her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, to reduce the number of asylum seekers entering Germany or risk a government split that could end her four-term reign.
She pledged before the Bundestag to improve Germany’s handling of “secondary migration” – the arrival of asylum seekers already registered in other EU countries – and called on “a coalition of willing countries” to come up with joint solutions.
But not all were happy for EU migration policy to be taken hostage by internal German politics.
“It cannot be that some Bavarian party decides how Europe works,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said, referring to Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, the regional sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Merkel could also face resistance from countries that do not want to share the burden of hosting migrants.
Speaking at the start of the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said European citizens want two things: to stop the flow of migrants and return those who are already in the bloc.
“In order to restore European democracy, we have to move to that direction,” he said. “I hope that will happen today.”
A new government in Italy is also adding to the political pressure: it stirred renewed debate about burden-sharing after blocking port entry to two rescue boats carrying migrants in the past two weeks, while also calling for a radical change to EU migration policy.
Over the years, Italy has heard “many manifestations of solidarity,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said. “Italy no longer needs verbal signs of declaration, but needs concrete facts,” he added, warning that he was ready to scupper joint summit conclusions if necessary.
European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU should focus on securing its external borders, including a controversial new idea to establish “disembarkation platforms” outside the bloc to deter people from trying to reach Europe.
“The alternative to this solution would be a chaotically advancing closure of borders – also within the EU – as well as growing conflict among EU member states,” he said.
Tusk said his proposals might seem “too tough,” but repeated his warning that the EU risks losing out to radical forces. “If we don’t agree on them, then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys,” he said.
There are few details on the concept of disembarkation platforms, which would most likely be set up in Northern Africa. EU officials insist these would run in cooperation with the International Office for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker cautioned against jumping to conclusions without speaking to the countries affected.
“We here in Brussels cannot make decisions for North African countries,” he said, warning against creating the impression of “neocolonialism.”
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said there was no need to get into a panic over migration.
“Many are talking about a crisis. We’re talking about numbers that at the moment are more or less 80 per cent less than … last year. So we’re talking about numbers that are perfectly manageable,” Mogherini said.