EU papers over differences after 'frank' talks on migration

As EU officials meet to discuss Europe's migrant crisis, a Spanish aid group says there are seven boats in the Mediterranean Sea carrying about 1,000 migrants in need of rescue off Libya's coast, but that Italy has declined its offer of help.

As meeting takes place, aid group says Italy declines request for help to rescue 1,000 migrants at sea

Migrants, part of a group intercepted aboard dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, are seen on a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain on Saturday. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

The leaders of 16 countries survived the "frank talk" of an emergency meeting on immigration and emerged with a veneer of common purpose Sunday as the European Union enters a potentially vital week for its unity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the meeting produced "a lot of goodwill" to resolve differences over how to manage the refugees and economic migrants who are willing to risk their lives to reach Europe.

The leaders of several more countries joined Italy and France in endorsing the idea of setting up centres in Africa to screen potential asylum-seekers for eligibility before they set out for another continent.

The talks were "frank and open," but "we don't have any concrete consequences or conclusions," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.

The prevailing honesty and benevolence on display Sunday barely lower the stakes for a full EU summit opening Thursday. Four member countries in eastern Europe refused to take part in the meeting because of demands that they take in more asylum-seekers to ease the burden elsewhere.

New Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte presented a plan that argues existing EU asylum rules are obsolete and "paradoxical." The current rules effectively mean migrants only can apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive, usually Italy or Greece.

Italian proposal

Conte said his 10-point proposal would be a "paradigm shift" in how Europe approaches migration and that he was "decidedly satisfied" with the outcome of Sunday's meeting.

"We have given the right direction for the debate underway. We'll see each other Thursday," he said.

Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron held out little hope they would be able to gather all 28 nations behind a single immigration plan at the upcoming summit.

These migrants were found off the coast in the Mediterranean and brought to the Spanish port of Malaga on Saturday. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Merkel, who is battling a domestic political crisis with her coalition partners over migration, said she was seeking "bilateral and trilateral" deals to cope with short-term migration pressures.

EU nations, she said, have to see "how can we help each other without always having to wait for all 28, but by thinking what's important to whom."

The idea of pre-screening Europe-bound asylum-seekers in North Africa gained support from several leaders amid the escalating tensions that threaten to undermine EU cohesion.

Downward trend

Paradoxically, the EU's immigration policies are receiving renewed attention as the number of newcomers reaching Europe has dropped significantly.

The U.N.'s refugee agency forecasts that around 80,000 people will arrive to Europe by sea in 2018 if current trends continue — but the EU's political turmoil over the topic has soared.

Anti-migrant parties — and governments in Hungary and Italy — have been fomenting public fears of foreigners and have won support doing so.

"Some are trying to use the situation in Europe to create political tension and to play with fear," French President Emmanuel Macron said. "We must not give in. When someone has the right to protection and asylum, we should grant it."

A failure to find agreement could threaten the EU's border-free travel area, one of the biggest accomplishments of the bloc's 60-year history.

Despite the different perspectives, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, "progress is possible on Thursday."

Screening centres in Africa?

Encouraged by a deal with Turkey that has slashed the number of people arriving from there by 97 per cent since 2015, the EU appeared ready to greenlight plans to set up screening centres in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.

Plans to set up migrant reception centres in Albania are also under discussion.

Macron said "the method that we are going to adopt" would involve "working together vis-a-vis the countries of transit and origin outside the European Union."

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the informal meeting on migration and asylum issues in Brussels on Sunday. Sixteen of the EU's 28 leaders were in attendance. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE)

He mentioned Libya — the main jumping off point for countries bound for Europe — other African countries and the Balkans.

Noting that migrant arrivals have dropped significantly, Macron said: "it's a political crisis that Europe and the European Union is mostly living today."

Meanwhile, Spain's Sanchez urged his EU partners to help Spain deal with a growing number of arrivals across the Mediterranean Sea.

As with everything linked to migration in Europe, even the meeting in Brussels did not please everybody. Four eastern EU countries — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — refused to attend and reject taking in migrants in general.

Ongoing crisis

The UNHCR says around 40,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, some 16,000 in Italy, 12,000 in Greece and 12,000 in Spain.

As the meeting was taking place, a Spanish aid group that has rescued thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea said that seven boats with about 1,000 migrants aboard were in need of rescue off Libya's coast, and that Italy had declined its offer of help.

Proactiva Open Arms said in a tweet Sunday that Italian coast guard authorities who co-ordinate rescues sent out advisories to all ships in the area but told Proactiva: "We don't need your help."

Proactiva says Italy is seeking to have the Libyan coast guard conduct the rescues and bring the migrants back to North Africa.

Italian coast guard officials said they received distress calls from six different migrant boats Sunday that were in Libya's search-and-rescue territory. The Italians said they alerted ships in the area and formally advised the Libyan coast guard, which officially took over the rescue.

With files from CBC News