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Italy torpedoes EU summit in migration row

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrives at the EU summit threatening to block a joint statement on migration unless Italy gets more help
AFP

Brussels (AFP) – Italy’s hardline new premier on Thursday held an EU summit hostage in an increasingly bitter row over migration that German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned could decide the bloc’s destiny.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who heads Italy’s month-old populist and anti-immigration government, took the rare step of blocking the joint conclusions from the meeting in Brussels, as tensions boiled over.

Italy has refused to let several migrant rescue boats dock at Italian ports, reopening EU divisions on the issue despite the fact that arrivals have dipped sharply since Europe’s migration crisis erupted in 2015.

“Italy does not need more words, but concrete actions,” Conte told reporters as he arrived at the summit, adding that if EU leaders did not offer more help “we will not have shared conclusions.”

Italy wants the responsibility for migrants on ships arriving on its shores across the Mediterranean to be shared out across the 28-nation European Union.

It noted how other governments had offered to help after Italy refused to admit the rescue ship Aquarius, which docked later in Spain, and Lifeline, which went to Malta.

Former law professor Conte, until recently a virtual political unknown, comes to Brussels emboldened by the announcement of an upcoming visit to US President Donald Trump, who has hailed Rome’s tough stance, and who himself blocked the conclusions of a recent G7 leaders meeting on trade.

European Council spokesman Preben Aamann said that after several hours of talks, conclusions on all issues from the summit — which is also dealing with trade and defence in addition to the core subject of migration — had been blocked.

“As one member reserved their position on the entire conclusions, no conclusions have been agreed at this stage,” Aamann said in a statement, adding that a press conference by EU President Donald Tusk scheduled for Thursday night had been postponed until Friday.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” an Italian source added.

A European source said the other 27 EU leaders were “astonished and really not happy” over Italy hardening its position.

“It was a very virulent discussion and everyone jumped on the Italian,” a European source said.

– ‘Europe’s destiny’ –

Failure to issue a joint statement at the end of the summit on Friday would be a catastrophic show of disunity for the EU leaders, who are meeting amid warnings that authoritarian and “anti-European” movements will take advantage of their failure to tackle migration.

Poland last year blocked conclusions after leaders re-elected former Polish premier Tusk as EU chief over their objections.

Merkel’s political future at home also hangs in the balance over the migrant issue, and she issued a rallying call to the other European leaders to back her stance.

“Europe has many challenges but migration could end up determining Europe’s destiny,” Merkel told German lawmakers hours ahead of the summit.

For years Europe’s most powerful leader, Merkel risks seeing her fragile coalition collapse if she cannot reach deals with Italy and other countries to stop migrants initially arriving in those countries from moving on to Germany.

After allowing more than one million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015, Merkel faces an end-of-month deadline from her own interior minister to seal pacts to curb so-called secondary migration.

Italy has insisted on getting help for dealing with new arrivals before making any further deals. 

Tusk meanwhile issued a fresh warning on the need for action on migration to stave off rising populism and authoritarianism, saying that “the stakes are high and time is short.”

“Some may think I am too tough in my proposals on migration, but trust me, if we don’t agree on them, then you’ll see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys,” the former Polish premier added.

– World Cup surprise –

Tusk has proposed that the leaders approve work on migrant “disembarkation platforms” in countries outside Europe, most likely in Africa, according to a draft summit statement.

But long-mulled plans for a permanent scheme to share migrants arriving in Italy and Greece around other EU countries appear doomed to fail for now.

Former communist countries in Eastern Europe, particularly the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland, implacably oppose the plan.

The leaders will on Friday discuss largely French and German proposals, many watered down, to reform the euro, but notably absent is any overt support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for a eurozone budget.

Brexit has meanwhile been largely relegated to the sidelines of this summit, with British Prime Minister Theresa May set to update leaders after admitting the need to make “faster” progress as she arrived at the venue.

EU leaders are expected on Friday to say that talks, which have stalled on the issue of the Irish border, are running out of time to get a deal.

But in a light-hearted bid to ease tensions, Belgian premier Charles Michel surprised May with a gift of a Belgian football shirt, as a World Cup clash between Belgium and England coincides with the summit on Thursday night.

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