European leaders gathering in Brussels for the first time since a right-wing, populist government came to power in Italy and at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Bavarian CSU, is pushing for an anti-immigrant alliance with Rome and Vienna, closed the day in an unusually contentious fashion after Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, refusing to approve the summit’s statement and telling his fellow European leaders that they must meet his demands on migration.
In what many are calling a “crisis summit”, EU leaders are under pressure to strike deals on defence, Brexit, migration, the economy, growth, and employment.
In an unusually ill-tempered showdown that underscored the bloc’s deep divisions over the sensitive issue of migration, Conte arrived in Brussels and immediately threatened to block the conclusions of the EU summit if his demands were not met. According to an Italian diplomat, Conte wants five entries to be added to the bloc’s official statement, while also threatening to veto further negotiations unless other European states commit to open their ports to migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
The move appeared to surprise the other leaders and forced the summit’s chairman Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to abruptly cancel a news conference planned for immediately after the round of talks.
“The European Council, this afternoon, had an exchange of views with EP President (Antonio) Tajani and NATO Secretary-General (Jens Stoltenberg), as well as discussions on security and defence, jobs, growth and competitiveness, innovation, as well as digital and other issues that also included enlargement, MH-17 and MFF,” the official statement said, adding, “As one member reserved their right on the entire set of conclusions, none have been agreed at this stage. For this reason, the press conference by the EU institutional representatives has been cancelled and will instead take place after the end of the Euro Summit.”
According to an EU official, the situation is similar to what happened in March 2017 when Tusk has published his “conclusions of the president”. At the time, Poland refused to agree to Tusk’s reappointment, a decision that was still granted via qualified majority. Poland had agreed with the general consensus but refused to back Tusk.
In Conte’s case, he is demanding that other EU states share the costs and burden of handling migrants that are rescued in the Mediterranean.
“We are still hoping that Conte felt compelled to stir up a mess and at the end of the day he will get back in line, but it’s far from certain,” an EU diplomat said. Commenting on Conte’s decision to walk away from the conclusions, Tusk highlighted the options for dealing with the migrant problem – further strengthening the EU’s external border and creating migrant processing centres. “The alternative to this solution would be a chaotic border closure, also within the EU, as well as conflicts between member states,” warned Tusk.
According to draft conclusions circulated before the two-day summit, the leaders planned to agree to measures to strengthen Europe’s external borders, spend more on fighting illegal immigration and step up cooperation to prevent refugees and migrants from moving within the bloc.
France and Spain, however, both want EU-run processing centres established, while Italy wants the end of Dublin reform and demands that migrants who arrive by boat are distributed among the EU countries before they disembark.
Less than 45,000 migrants have made it to the European Union this year, according to United Nations data, a precipitous decline from the 2015 crisis that saw more than a million refugees and migrants illegally enter Europe.