A ‘mini-summit’ of more than half of the European Union’s leaders appears doomed to end in frustration as the EU struggles to contain huge splits among its members over migration policy.
German leader Angela Merkel, whose political future is under threat unless she can wrest deals from her European counterparts on migration, has already conceded the mini-summit in Brussels on Sunday will bring no solution to the problem.
Mrs Merkel, on a visit to Lebanon on Saturday, also admitted that Thursday’s European Council summit of all 28 leaders would not solve the problem either.
She is now pinning her hopes on a series of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral deals with fiercely anti-migrant governments in countries such as Italy and Austria.
Under the so-called Dublin rules, asylum-seekers must be processed in the country where they first arrive, usually Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece and Spain.
EU leaders last December set the end of June as a deadline to reform the rules by establishing a permanent mechanism to relocate asylum-seekers throughout the bloc and setting time limits for how long a migrant must be in a country before they cannot be returned to where they first arrived.
There has been a sharp decrease in migrant arrivals since their peak in 2015, when more than one million Syrian asylum-seekers and others entered the bloc. EU cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main transit countries, have sharply cut, at least for now, the flow of migrants.
However, Germans are turning against Mrs Merkel’s open-door policy to asylum seekers at the height of the crisis and new populist governments in Austria and Italy are taking a hard line against proposed reforms to EU wide migration policy.
According to a weekly poll published by Bild on Sunday, Mrs Merkel’s warring conservative union currently has its lowest approval rates since last November. While the far-right AfD has reached its highest score ever, with 16 per cent.
A different poll published on Saturday found that almost half of Germans want the EU's most powerful leader to quit.
Mrs Merkel's interior minister Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, has given her until the end of June to find a European deal to curb new arrivals. If that fails, he has vowed to order border police to turn back migrants, which means many will likely have to return to Italy and Mrs Merkel would be forced to back him or sack him.
On Saturday Andrea Nahles, leader of the center-left Social Democrats, accused Mr Seehofer of being a “danger to Europe,” whose actions could lead to a “German Brexit”.
Markus Soder, the CSU prime minister of the German state of Bavaria, said in comments published on Sunday that he does not want to invite Mrs Merkel to speak at rallies during the upcoming Bavarian election campaign.
Instead, he told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that the right-wing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is an opponent of Mrs Merkel's refugee policy in the EU, has agreed to speak. This has never happened before in the nearly 70-year history of the Union parties.
Mr Kurz warned on Saturday that if Germany turned back migrants, Vienna would reinstate border controls. That is anathema to the European Commission, which is seeking to preserve the EU’s passport-free Schengen Zone.
EU diplomats warned that if no EU-wide asylum reforms were agreed, Schengen could be sacrificed by governments looking to prevent migrants moving on from Italy and Greece to their countries. “The situation is risky,” one diplomat said.
Diplomats said the mini-summit, held at the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, was “to save” Mrs Merkel.
Austria, Greece, Malta, Bulgaria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany, France and Spain are the 16 countries represented.
The four Visegrad countries of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have boycotted the summit and have long been at loggerheads with the EU over the vexed policy of mandatory migrant quotas, which relocate refugees across the bloc.
The EU is divided between the richer Northern and poorer Southern countries, as well as between East and West on the issue.
Since assuming office several weeks ago, Italy's new populist government has refused to admit foreign-flagged rescue ships packed with hundreds of migrants. Reflecting popular anger over the failure of EU member states for years to shoulder more of the migrant burden, Rome has pledged not to take in one more asylum-seeker.
Mrs Merkel only convinced Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to attend the mini-summit by telling him pre-written conclusions had been withdrawn, Italian officials said. The conclusions included calls to speed up returns to countries tasked with processing them, such as Italy.
There will no be no written accord at the end of the mini-summit, merely a “summary of the issues” discussed at the meeting of about four and a half hours.
Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has called for a European solution to the migration crisis but was accused of “arrogance” and hypocrisy by Rome after turning back migrants at the French-Italian border. The Five Star Movement, which is in coalition with the hard right League, branded France “public enemy number one”.
Mr Macron on Saturday said there was no "crisis" of migration in Italy because migrant boat arrivals are down about 80 per cent compared to last year.
That is true - the exact figure is 77 per cent, comparing January to June last year with this year - but the Italians say that is not the point - they have taken in 650,000 migrants and refugees in four years and they have had enough.
Mr Macron has suggested that countries refusing to take in migrant quotas, such as Hungary and Poland have done, should be fined.
However, he faces domestic and international criticism after failing to offer the Aquarius migrant rescue ship a berth after it was refused permission to land by Italy and Malta. Spain agreed to take in the boat and its new prime minister Pedro Sanchez will make his Brussels debut on Sunday.
"If this is not a problem for arrogant President Macron then we invite him to stop with the insults and demonstrate his generosity by opening French ports," said Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the League.
"If French arrogance thinks it can transform Italy into the refugee camp for the whole of Europe, perhaps by giving us a few euros in a hand-out, then he has totally failed to understand the situtation," he added.
Mr Macron and Italy support an EU plan for “disembarkation centres”, migrant processing operations based outside of the EU. The bloc’s migration commissioner admitted earlier this week that not one African country had yet been asked if they would take such a centre on its soil.
The mini-summit will also tackle how to strengthen the bloc's external borders, where consensus exists.
In a sign of Austria’s tough stance, Mr Kurz’s defence minister called the EU’s border agency’s mandate to be expanded to include the deployment of soldiers on the bloc’s borders.
Meanwhile, there is continuing deadlock in the Mediterranean over two ships with migrants on board.
The Lifeline, a rescue vessel run by a German NGO, has been refused entry by both Malta and Italy, with its captain saying he hopes the standoff can be resolved by diplomacy. There are around 225 asylum seekers on board.
The Alexander Maersk, a Danish merchant vessel, has around 110 migrants on board and is south of the coast of Sicily.