BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday she would seek direct deals with separate European Union states on migration, conceding that the bloc has failed to find a joint solution to an issue threatening her government.
Since Mediterranean arrivals spiked in 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants reached the bloc, EU leaders have been at odds over how to handle them, the feud weakening their unity and undermining Europe’s free travel area.
Sixteen of the EU’s 28 leaders held emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday.
“One large part of today’s discussions will be protecting the outside borders and how we reduce illegal migration to Europe,” Merkel said on arriving at the meeting.
“There will also be a discussion about secondary migration, how do we treat each other fairly inside (the free-travel zone of) Schengen, how can we find a reasonable balance,” she added.
U.N. data shows only some 41,000 people have made it to the EU across the sea this year but opinion polls show migration is the top concern for the EU’s 500 million citizens.
Italy has long struggled to cope with arrivals and its new populist government rejects any ideas that would see it handle even more people.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that the bloc’s rule stipulating that the first EU country of arrival is responsible for migrants should be dropped. This would greatly reduce the pressure on Italy.
Since 2015, the EU has turned more restrictive on asylum and tightened its external borders to let fewer people in.
At loggerheads over hosting asylum seekers, EU states agree they want to work more with other regions such as north Africa to prevent people from setting sail for Europe.
They are considering setting up centers abroad to decide on asylum requests there and send back those whose cases fail.
“A European solution means throwing more German money at things. We will be moving towards more cash and aid for places like Libya, we will beef up the EU border and coast guards, we will send more illegal migrants back,” one EU diplomat said.
“But we will always have legitimate asylum seekers who are entitled to our help. And we can’t agree how to divide the responsibility of caring for them.”
Migration has decided elections for politicians across the bloc from Italy to Hungary, with voters favoring those taking a tougher stance.
Merkel is now under pressure because her conservative allies, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), have threatened to start turning away at the German border all those already registered for asylum elsewhere in the EU unless the bloc reaches an agreement on distributing them more evenly.
They mostly live in arrival countries such as Greece and Italy or wealthy ones like Germany where they try start a new life.
Four ex-communist EU states in the east led by Hungary and Poland have refused to host any of the new arrivals. Now backed by Austria, they want to end any further discussion on rules for sharing them out across the bloc.
The bloc has been unable to break that deadlock, with bad blood spilling over to other areas of cooperation, including crucial talks on the EU’s next seven-year budget from 2021.
Merkel opposes the idea by the CSU as it would mean rigid border controls inside Schengen. That would have a knock-on effect on other EU states, hit cross-border business and travel.
The Sunday talks, convened just days before a full EU summit on June 28-29, will produce no entirely new solutions and the bloc will go on pushing to curb arrivals. But working with countries such as Tunisia or Niger is complicated, slow and costly.
What Merkel needs sooner are deals to stop migrants from trekking north, as well as an agreement that the coastal states would take back people who make it to German soil against EU rules.
Conte said such secondary movements would not be a problem if other EU states help Italy more in dealing with arrivals. Rome on Sunday separately criticized Malta for refusing to take in a rescue ship with over 230 migrants.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Peter Maushagen and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Stephen Jewkes in Rome, Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Andrew Bolton/Keith Weir