By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders locked horns at a summit in Brussels over the divisive issue of hosting refugees who reach Europe, reopening a two-year-old dispute that has shaken the bloc.
Talks begun over dinner stretched into the early part of Friday as they put forward opposing views, diplomats said.
A mass influx of migrants from the Middle East in 2015 created deep divisions in the EU and members are still feuding over how to share the burden of caring for asylum seekers.
The row pits frontline Mediterranean countries Italy and Greece, and rich destination countries like Germany and Sweden, against four ex-communist states on the EU’s eastern edge – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. These have refused to welcome refugees in any significant numbers.
Arriving at their first summit of EU leaders, the new Polish and Czech prime ministers vowed not to give ground.
They felt emboldened by a pre-summit note to the leaders by Council chair Donald Tusk, a former Polish premier, who indicated that mandatory quotas for countries to take in asylum seekers relocated from frontline states did not work. That irked other governments and the executive European Commission.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, which is heading towards elections probably in March, told “a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned what she called “selective solidarity” and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said:
“We cannot have a system in which countries shop for those things they like from the European Union, not willing to deliver the necessary solidarity.”
After criticism from Germany and Belgium among others, Tusk had to redraft his pre-summit note. [L8N1OD360]
The four eastern prime ministers offered 35 million euros to Italy on Thursday to support EU-backed migration projects in Libya aimed at curbing immigration to Europe. [L8N1OB30J]
They want to help by providing money, equipment and personnel to further tighten the EU’s external borders but not host any refugees, especially Muslims from the Middle East and Africa, who they say would compromise their national security.
No decisions are expected on Thursday night and the bloc’s ambition to have a deal on reforming their common systems by June looks in doubt. One French official source said the controversy would take a lot of time to untangle. [L8N1OD360].
Germany and other proponents of the quotas warn they could force the waverers to accept refugees in a majority vote if no compromise is found.
That would further deepen divisions as the 27 states try to maintain a united front in Brexit negotiations with London.
Italy and other net contributors to the EU budget have also threatened to punish the easterners by depriving them of some of the generous EU handouts they provide to help their ex-communist peers catch up on development.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Robert Muller; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)