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European leaders claim breakthrough deal on migration after marathon talks

The summit took place in an atmosphere of political crisis and underscored how Europe's 2015 spike in immigration continues to haunt the bloc, despite a sharp drop in arrivals since.
by Associated Press /
Image: BELGIUM-EU-SUMMIT-POLITICS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz in Brussels on Friday.Ludovic Marin / AFP - Getty Images

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BRUSSELS — European leaders declared victory Friday, claiming to have set aside major differences over how best to handle migrant arrivals as they commissioned new plans to screen people in North Africa for eligibility to enter the continent.

But even as they met for a second day in Brussels, the coast guard in Libya — the main jumping off point for most migrants trying to reach Europe — said around 100 people were missing and feared dead in the Mediterranean Sea after their smugglers' boat capsized.

Bickering over who should take responsibility for the tens of thousands rescued from the Mediterranean has undermined European unity and threatens the future of cross-border business and travel inside the E.U.

The summit underscored how the 2015 spike in immigration continues to haunt the continent, despite a sharp drop in arrivals of people fleeing conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa.

It also took place in an atmosphere of political crisis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel under intense political pressure at home to take a firmer stance on migration.

At the summit, the E.U. leaders agreed upon a "new approach" to managing those who are plucked from the water. They would be "disembarked" from rescue ships into European nations that agree to share responsibility for handing migration with the main point-of-entry countries like Spain, Italy and Greece but also to centers in North Africa and possibly the Balkans.

"A complete approach was adopted," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a night of haggling to address vehement demands from Italy's new anti-migrant populist government.

Image: ITALY-EUROPE-MIGRANTS-RESCUE
Migrants wait to disembark in the port of Catania, Sicily, after an Italian Coast Guard rescued them at sea.Giovanni Isolino / AFP - Getty Images

“We are not an island," said Macron. "Europe will have to live a long time with such migratory pressures which come from countries in crisis, poor countries.”

No North African countries have agreed so far to sign on to the plan, though possible E.U. funding that could bring billions in aid may prove persuasive.

Italy long held up any interim agreements at the summit unless it received concrete commitments the country would get help managing the waves of newcomers that arrive from across the Mediterranean.

“Italy doesn’t need any more verbal signs, but concrete deeds,” Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, insisting that the responsibility needed to be shared more equitably across the E.U.

As with so many E.U. agreements, Friday’s deal stopped well short of being decisive in solving the problem but created enough of a platform to build on.

“Europe is going step by step, and this was necessary,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

But migrant experts and humanitarian aid groups fear the agreement is a political smoke screen aimed at addressing the concerns of the resurgent far-right and which will only leave vulnerable people once again at risk.

"At a time when E.U. leadership on global issues is needed more than ever, European heads of state and government continue to try to offload their responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the E.U.," said Oxfam migration policy adviser Raphael Shilhav.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that some 80,000 people will enter Europe by sea this year, based on current trends. That’s around half as many as in 2017.

Yet anti-migrant parties have made significant political gains, most recently in Italy, which along with Greece and Spain is among the preferred landing destinations for people from Africa seeking better lives.

Merkel, for her part, is fighting a battle at home and abroad against critics who accuse her of endangering European security with her hospitality. Her conservative coalition is under pressure from the far-right Alternative for Germany.

But Merkel is deeply aware of the threat the issue poses to Europe, notably to its Schengen passport-free travel area — one of the jewels in the E.U. crown — that allows easy cross-border business and travel.

“Europe has many challenges, but that of migration could determine the fate of the European Union,” Merkel told German lawmakers Thursday before heading to the summit.

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