By Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Rivals from the two sides of the European Union’s migration dispute will meet in Brussels on Thursday in a goodwill gesture just as the bloc reopens a bitter feud over hosting refugees.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, which has at times been overwhelmed with mass arrivals of African refugees and migrants, will talk to the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Brussels before all 28 EU leaders discuss migration over dinner.
The four eastern EU states have persistently refused to accept asylum-seekers to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, the other sea gateway to Europe, even at the height of arrivals in 2015 when more than a million people reached the bloc.
Since then on, Italy, Germany and other wealthy destination countries have called for an obligatory system of moving some of those arriving to other EU states when immigration spikes.
They see it as a matter of European solidarity, which also manifests itself in the generous handouts the richer west provides.
But the easterners flatly reject any mandatory quotas on accepting people from the mainly-Muslim Middle East and Africa, saying that risks compromising their security after a raft of Islamist attacks in Europe since late 2015.
Instead, on Thursday the four will offer Gentiloni some 35 million euros (£30.7 million) for EU-backed projects Rome has been leading in Libya to prevent people from trekking north to Europe.
But internally, the EU has been unable to agree on relocation, something one senior EU diplomat likened to “fighting trench warfare” that has badly undermined member states’ trust in each other.
Right before the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels this Thursday and Friday, their chairman, Donald Tusk, reignited the dispute by coming out strongly against “divisive” and “ineffective” obligatory quotas.
An EU scheme agreed for two years in 2015 – despite opposition by Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic – to relocate 160,000 people has only seen some 32,000 transfers from Italy and Greece.
In an unusually public row between the EU’s Brussels institutions, the bloc’s executive arm, which has been a strong proponent of a mandatory and automated relocation, lashed out at Tusk.
The executive European Commission’s migration chief, Dimitris Avramopoulos, called Tusk’s intervention “unacceptable” and “anti-European”.
The disagreement between Tusk and the Commission translates into divisions between member states, casting doubt on whether they will be able to reach an agreement by their June target date.
Another senior EU diplomat had only “modest expectations” of the leaders’ migration discussion on Thursday evening, meaning they were not expected to take any decisions but, at best, make a small step towards unlocking a future agreement.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Balmforth)