By John Follain, Gregory Viscusi, and Patrick Donahue, Bloomberg
Italy’s rookie prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, negotiated a package of measures at his first European Union summit to stem the flow of migrants into the bloc and spread the burden of handling those who do arrive.
During talks in Brussels that wrapped up after 4:30 a.m. Friday, member states agreed to increase border security, set up holding centers to handle asylum seekers, and to speed up the process of determining whether people have the right to asylum and expelling those who don’t. Leaders also pledged to overhaul the rules for distributing migrants when a gateway country is overwhelmed, a key Italian demand.
“Italy is no longer alone,” Conte told reporters as he left the summit venue.
The euro jumped as investors saw the deal defusing the dispute, which has opened up old and new rifts within the EU. It traded up 0.6 percent at 9:10 a.m. in Brussels.
It remains unclear whether the agreement will be sufficient to help German Chancellor Angela Merkel stave off a revolt by her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which could deprive her of a parliamentary majority. Early signs were promising as Hans Michelbach, a deputy CSU leader — and a moderate within the party — welcomed the deal.
“It’s a positive signal that things are moving in Europe in the right direction. We have to recognize that there has been movement and from our side that can certainly be seen as positive,” he told Germany’s ARD television.
Within the bloc, deep divisions remain between those with a relatively liberal stance on migration, such as Merkel or Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who told reporters on his arrival that “the invasion must be stopped.”
Refugee flows have actually declined sharply since a surge in 2015.
In the run up to the talks, Conte’s populist administration sparred with Spain and particularly France over its decision to bar migrant rescue ships from docking in Italian ports. Yet as the negotiations dragged on through dinner in Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron had a key role in shepherding the settlement.
Conte and Macron huddled briefly before the talks began and then had two separate one-on-one meetings through the night. An Italian official welcomed what he called a change of attitude from the French side. The optics of the two leaders working together — Macron tweeted a photo at one point — may help mend relations between two governments that have been exchanging insults in recent weeks.
“With Giuseppe Conte, we are working together to find a European agreement on the sharing of refugees,” Macron said in a tweet.
Much remains opaque about the deal, however, not least whether it has any more chance of being implemented than previous attempts at burden sharing. The promise of new EU money to combat illegal migration may help oil the wheels.
Heading into the talks, Conte threatened to block the summit’s entire agenda unless he got the support he want. In the end he surpassed anything his predecessors had extracted in years of pleading since the immigration crisis flared in 2015. Spain won recognition of the renewed challenge in the western Mediterranean.
Merkel came to the summit under pressure from her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, a Bavarian who is demanding a deal to control the flow of migrants within the EU and ease the return of people to front-line countries such as Italy. Without such an assurance, he has threatened to defy the chancellor and order migrants turned away at the border, risking a historic split between the two parties that could rob Merkel of her parliamentary majority.
Merkel had to be content with a single paragraph on the third page of the statement, committing “all necessary measures” to curb the movement of migrants northward to more prosperous countries such as Germany. Whether this summit deal is enough to sway Seehofer’s CSU will be determined Sunday, when the party’s board meets in Munich to assess the latest developments.
The German troubles represent the tip of deeper political crisis in Europe as advocates of a harder line in countries including Austria, Italy and in eastern Europe sense the momentum is with them to push their case. In a speech to the Bundestag earlier on Thursday, Merkel warned that the issue of migration “may well turn into a question of the EU’s destiny.”
As she left the summit, Merkel smiled wearily and hailed the agreement as a “positive message.” Macron said it offered a coherent approach to the phenomenon of migration.
“This is the fruit of a joint effort and it’s European cooperation which has produced it, rather than the option of no agreement or national-level decisions that wouldn’t have been either effective or durable,” he said.