BRUSSELS/ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday a draft EU accord on migration had been withdrawn after he clashed with Chancellor Angela Merkel over an issue that is splitting Europe.
The leaders of four central European states, meanwhile, confirmed they would boycott an EU mini-summit on migration, taking a veiled swipe at Merkel by accusing countries of pushing the issue for domestic political reasons.
The withdrawn declaration had been drafted ahead of an emergency meeting of 10 EU leaders set for Sunday in Brussels, with Germany and France hoping for a swift deal that could be approved at a full EU summit at the end of next week.
It contained key elements Merkel needs to placate her rebellious coalition partner, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) and its head, Horst Seehofer, who is also Germany’s interior minister.
But Rome objected to provisions that said asylum seekers would have to be returned to the EU country they had first logged their claim in, which often means Italy.
Rome has taken in some 650,000 boat migrants over the past five years, stoking anti-immigration sentiment in Italy and fueling the rise of the far-right League, which forged a coalition government this month.
Conte, who had threatened not to go to Brussels on Sunday unless the draft was amended, spoke to Merkel on Thursday.
“The chancellor clarified that there had been a ‘misunderstanding’. The draft text released yesterday will be shelved,” Conte wrote on Facebook, adding that he would now go to Brussels at the weekend.
Berlin played down the dispute. “We are in constructive talks with Italy. The meeting on Sunday has only preparatory character,” a German government source said.
Italian authorities appeared to relent on Thursday after at first refusing to accept 226 migrants on board a German rescue ship, saying later in the day they would take them in but impound the vessel.
Anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini initially said the Dutch-flagged Lifeline should take the people it had plucked from the Mediterranean to the Netherlands, not Italy.
But transport minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees the coastguard, later said it was unsafe for the 32-metre vessel to travel so far with so many people on board.
EU states have been at loggerheads over migration since arrivals spiked in 2015, when more than one million migrants reached its shores across the Mediterranean. There have been 41,000 sea arrivals so far this year, data shows.
Most are in coastal states of arrival like Italy and Greece, or rich destination states like Germany and Sweden, where governments have felt heat from voters over the new arrivals.
EU states to the east are refusing to take migrants in. Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday hosted a meeting of the “Visegrad 4” former Communist countries, with the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The four confirmed they would not attend the Sunday talks.
“We understand there are domestic political difficulties in some countries but that cannot lead to pan-European haste,” Orban said.
“We understand that there will ... be a mini-summit on Sunday but we would like to state clearly that the prime ministers of V4 agreed that they will not go to that.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the four states spoke “with one voice” on the migrant issue. “Let’s just say we don’t belong to this migrant-loving group of friends, and neither do we want to partake,” he said.
Unless all EU states agree at their looming June 28-29 summit to share out asylum seekers more evenly, Seehofer has threatened to introduce an entry ban on the German border for all those who have already registered for asylum elsewhere.
Merkel opposes that idea as it would require rigid checks on the EU’s mostly open internal borders. Many would see such checks as reversing a key success story of European integration.
Hence, she asked other EU states to hold extra talks this Sunday and agree to do more on migration in the hope that would be enough to convince Seehofer not to go it alone.
With an eye on further curbing arrivals, the bloc’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said separately on Thursday EU states should make asylum assistance uniform to discourage refugees from moving between member states.
He said the EU should also work more with Africa, tighten borders further and explore setting up bases outside its territory where it would decide on asylum requests before claimants make it to EU soil, and hold them there if they were rejected.
Critics have long said such a plan could violate international humanitarian law. But Avramopoulos said such bases would not be “Guantanamo Bay for migrants”, in a reference to the widely-condemned U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, set up to hold terrorism suspects.
Additional reporting by Marton Dunai, Krisztina Than, Steve Scherer and Angelo Amante; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Andrew Roche