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Merkel's call for EU unity on migration hits trouble over internal feud

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By Alasdair Sandford  with Reuters
Merkel's call for EU unity on migration hits trouble over internal feud
Copyright  REUTERS/Michele Tantussi

Angela Merkel’s attempts to revive flagging European leadership on the touchy issue of migration are threatening to be derailed by internal divisions within her own government.

The row comes as France and Italy are gripped by a diplomatic row following Rome’s refusal to accept the migrant rescue ship Aquarius in Italian ports.

The German chancellor is in open conflict with the country’s interior minister Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian allies of Merkel’s ruling party.

He wants a much tougher asylum policy and has backed an Austrian proposal for individual countries to join together in tackling illegal migration. She believes such a move would undermine Germany’s call for EU unity.

In an unusual move, Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) are holding separate meetings on Thursday to address divisions.

The CSU wants Germany to turn away migrants at the border who are registered in other EU states. Both parties, along with their coalition partners the Social Democrats, have been struggling to adopt a common position.

On Wednesday Seehofer appeared alongside Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who said Europe needed “an axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration”. The pair said they had reached an agreement with Italy on a strategy.

However, the CDU leadership fears any unilateral action could weaken its negotiation position as it pushes for a strong unified EU position at the forthcoming summit on June 28-29.

Merkel wants the summit to agree bilateral or trilateral deals with EU states in which migrants are first registered but from which they head to Germany. She has proposed that asylum seekers who have already been rejected by Germany be sent back at the border.

“Europe must stick together,” Merkel said on Wednesday, acknowledging Italy’s concern that it had taken in more than its fair share of migrants and that other EU countries were failing to show solidarity.

The German chancellor described the migration question as “something of a litmus test for the future and unity of Europe, and the interests of every country must be considered”.