EU Leaders Reach A Deal To Limit Migrant Travel
Updated at 4:40 p.m.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels this week decided to take a harder line on migrants who don't come from what the bloc considers war zones.
Migrants awaiting asylum in one EU country may be blocked from entering another, and could end up being forced to stay at intake centers while their cases are decided.
A lot of the EU-wide deal, reached after meetings that lasted all night and into early Friday, focuses on member states' intentions rather than actions. Member states can carry out its provisions on a "voluntary basis."
But speaking to reporters after the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced additional agreements that could give the new approach some teeth.
They involve deals for Spain and Greece to take back migrants registered in those countries who are caught by border police trying to enter Germany.
In exchange, Germany will lend financial help to Greece and Spain to deal with new migrants landing on their shores, as well as expedite family reunification of migrants with relatives granted asylum in Germany.
"This is really substantial progress," Merkel told reporters after the summit Friday. "Everything that could be achieved in this timeframe has been done."
But she explained the summit deals will not fix everything. Germany needs to "more effectively address" its open borders, she added.
Merkel said a politically aligned group of countries that includes Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic insisted the new measures not be mandatory. Their governments have strongly resisted agreements that impose duties to resettle refugees in the EU.
The new EU approach and trilateral deal count as a win for the embattled Merkel, whose governing coalition seemed to be verging on collapse. But she acknowledges there is still "a lot of work to do to bridge the different views."
She has been besieged over immigration and refugee issues. Briefing German lawmakers in the Bundestag on Thursday, she had to fend off hecklers from the country's right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party.
One of her governing partners, the Christian Social Union from the southern German state of Bavaria, has threatened to quit the coalition. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a CSU member, even warned he would unilaterally turn back many migrants from the country's southern borders if his party doesn't like the deals reached in Brussels.
Merkel told reporters she will brief the CSU and her other coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, Friday night.
She plans to hold a separate meeting with Seehofer on Sunday — the day he has threatened to close Germany's borders to migrants, which would likely lead to his firing and Merkel's government falling apart.
Migrant arrivals reached record highs in 2015 but have fallen. The issue has nonetheless stoked nativist sentiments in such countries as Italy, where a new government includes the right-wing, anti-immigrant League party.
Italy is a front-line country for thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean each year and its new leaders have taken a hard line against migration. Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte threatened to derail the summit by vetoing all proposals if Italy's concerns were not addressed, according to officials at the summit speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity so they could talk candidly about the issue.
But Conte left the meetings sounding satisfied. "Italy is not alone anymore," he told reporters.
He and Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz said their cautious optimism has limits.
"It's important to implement this plan as quickly as possible," Kurz said. "That has to be the goal as the ideas are only worth something if they are implemented."
Austria, which is taking over the EU presidency on Sunday, is part of a growing chorus of European leaders threatening to unilaterally close their borders.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was highly critical of Italy for refusing refugees, said European cooperation had "won the day," according to Reuters.
On a voluntary basis, EU countries agreed to share the refugee responsibilities by creating "controlled centers" inside the EU to process asylum requests.
The agreement calls for efforts to break up people smuggling operations, and to be more aggressive in returning refugees who do not qualify for asylum.
Without specifics, it also says the EU is exploring establishing "regional disembarkation platforms" with non-EU countries in cooperation with the United Nations' International Organization for Migration and the refugee agency the UNHCR.
The Associated Press reports that the U.N.'s migration and refugee agencies praised the deal but cautioned that details need to be spelled out and that the African Union's buy-in is "indispensable."
Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for the IOM, was quoted by AP as saying the organization was "very pleased at the solidarity and consensus" that emerged from an EU summit in Brussels, in particular with the "front-line states" like Italy.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Brussels. Scott Neuman reported from Washington, D.C.
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