Italy and Germany clash as migration cuts to the core of EU unity

By Gabriela Baczynska and Crispian Balmer BRUSSELS/ROME, June 21 : Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday a draft EU accord on migration was withdrawn following a clash between himself and Germany over the issue that has split Europe and undermined Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The contested joint declaration was drawn up ahead of a meeting of 10 EU leaders set for Brussels on Sunday, with Germany and France hoping for a swift deal that could then be approved at a full EU summit at the end of next week.

It contained key elements Merkel needs to placate her rebellious coalition partner, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) and its head, Horst Seehofer, who is also Germany’s interior minister.

But Rome objected to provisions that said asylum seekers would have to be returned to the EU country they had first logged their claim in, which often means Italy.

Rome has taken in some 650,000 boat migrants over the past five years, stoking anti-immigration sentiment in Italy and fueling the rise of the far-right League, which forged a coalition government this month.

Conte, who had threatened not to go to Brussels on Sunday unless the draft declaration was amended, spoke to Merkel on Thursday.

“The chancellor clarified that there had been a ‘misunderstanding’. The draft text released yesterday will be shelved,” Conte wrote on Facebook, adding that he would now go to Brussels at the weekend.

EU states have waged migration wars since arrivals spiked across the Mediterranean in 2015, when more than one million refugees and migrants reached its shores across the Mediterranean. There have been 41,000 sea arrivals so far this year, data shows.

Most of them are between coastal states of arrival like Italy and rich destination states like Germany, where governments have felt heat from voters over managing the new arrivals.

East EU states like Poland and Hungary refuse to host any of these people to alleviate the burden on their most affected peers. They have drawn criticism for not showing solidarity, but have not budged.

This has long caused bad blood between EU states and weakened their trust in one another.

Unless all EU states agree at their looming June 28-29 summit to share out asylum seekers more evenly, Seehofer has threatened to introduce an entry ban on the German border for all those who try to get into the country but have already registered for asylum elsewhere.

Merkel opposes that idea as it would require slapping rigid checks on internal borders inside the EU where people mostly travel around without controls. Many would see reintroducing more border checks as pedalling back on decades of European integration.

But she is unable to break the reluctance of the easterners. Hence, she has asked other EU states to hold emergency talks this Sunday and agree to do more on migration in the hope that would prove enough to convince Seehofer not to go it alone.

With an eye on further curbing arrivals, European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos said separately on Thursday EU states should make asylum assistance uniform to discourage refugees from moving between member states. That would be one way to address Seehofer’s demands.

The EU should also work more with Africa, tighten borders further and explore setting up bases outside its territory where it would decide on asylum requests before migrants make it to its soil, and hold them there if their cases were rejected, he said.

Critics have long said such a plan could violate international humanitarian law. But Avramopoulos said they would not amount to the controversial U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, established to hold terrorism suspects.

“As far as the establishment of external centres in other countries within Europe, I want to be very clear on that: I’m against Guantanamo Bay for migrants. This is something against our European values,” he told a news conference.


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