Sunday’s discussions came as fights over migration have heated up even though the overall number of newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers has dropped dramatically compared with recent years, when hundreds of thousands of people journeyed through Turkey and Libya to reach Europe’s shores.
And despite the decline in arrivals, the political consequences of migration pressures are still reverberating across Europe. Merkel is seeking a way to redistribute across the continent the migrants who have already arrived. Italy, a front-line state to asylum seekers and migrants coming from North Africa, is more focused on the initial arrivals and on avoiding what it says is an unfair burden that has been placed on it by countries to its north.
Although no formal agreements were reached Sunday, ahead of a full summit on Thursday, the toughened attitudes toward migrants were on stark display. At stake could be the European Union’s prized borderless movement in the area known as the Schengen zone, which is the foundation for many other aspects of European integration.
“The first priority if we want to save free movement within the Schengen zone is to ensure a real and strict control of European borders,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said ahead of the meeting. He said leaders planned to try to sort out the legality of a range of ideas.
One proposal from European Council President Donald Tusk is to find spots outside Europe to sort economic migrants from people with legitimate asylum claims. Another, from French President Emmanuel Macron, is to establish closed camps inside Europe where migrants could await the outcome of their claims.
Macron blamed political posturing more than the actual migration situation for the current uproar in Europe, saying that “we are living through a political crisis more than a migratory crisis today.”
He said Europeans should “not forget our values.”
But he has also had an uncompromising approach to migration, toughening checks at France’s Riviera border with Italy and refusing to accept a ship filled with rescued migrants after Italy’s new leaders turned it away this month.
New arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers to Europe via the Mediterranean have dropped by more than half this year compared with the same period in 2017, according to the U.N. migration agency: 40,944 people as of Wednesday. The decline is even starker compared with 2016: It equals just 19 percent of the same period in that year.
The decline was fostered by a 2016 deal between the E.U. and Turkey that slowed the flow of migrants into Greece. Last year, Italy made a similar bargain with Libya.
Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, leads a coalition in which an anti-immigrant party has dominated the debate. He unveiled a detailed plan to overhaul Europe’s immigration system, which now requires that asylum seekers be returned to the first E.U. country they entered, which Italy and Greece argue puts an unfair burden on them.
Merkel requested Sunday’s meeting after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened a government crisis by pushing to seal the country’s borders to new migrants. Many German political analysts say Seehofer’s campaign is driven by upcoming local elections in Bavaria, where his Christian Social Union is being dogged from its right flank by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.
“This is about reducing the illegal migration to Europe,” in addition to movement within Europe, Merkel said ahead of the meeting. She said that E.U. leaders were unlikely to come to an agreement on Thursday and that she favored smaller agreements among individual countries to balance immigration flows.