LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union ministers searched in vain on Tuesday for a compromise on immigration reform, overshadowed by a new hardline government in Rome which has declared Italy will no longer be the continent’s “refugee camp”.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration issues, struck an upbeat note after talks in Luxembourg but signalled that agreeing a system for member states to share responsibility for asylum-seekers would take time.
“The last reform took eight years, I believe our reform will be done in a quicker way,” he told a news conference.
Arrivals of asylum-seekers largely landing in Italy and Greece, which peaked in 2015, have tested European unity and encouraged many voters to support anti-immigration parties, including the right-wing League of new Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
Salvini, who said this week that Italy “can’t be transformed into a refugee camp”, was absent from Luxembourg, instead attending a Senate address in Rome by new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
But anti-immigration ministers took heart from his hardline stand before a summit of EU leaders at the end of June which is supposed to tackle the reform. “I am happy for every ally,” said Austrian interior minister Herbert Kickl, a member of the right-wing Freedom Party.
The new Italian government has already opposed the latest proposal for adapting the EU asylum system.
Describing the mood of deadlock, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn quipped: “I guess we’ll have a compromise by Easter, I just don’t know of which year.”
Under the existing rules, refugees must claim asylum in the country in which they first enter the EU, leaving countries of entry such as Italy and Greece with a large number of migrants. Many are economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, not eligible for asylum and unable to return.
For those classified as refugees, such as people fleeing war or oppression in Syria and Eritrea, Brussels wants a distribution system among member states.
Wealthy EU members such as Germany and Austria complain they have taken in more asylum seekers than others, while central European countries such as Hungary and Poland have rejected obligatory quotas for accepting refugees.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called at the weekend for a flexible system in which countries that refuse quotas could compensate by making contributions in other areas. She also said the European border police force Frontex should be allowed to operate independently.
However, Merkel said she was unsure an agreement could be reached at the June summit.
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in 2016 that has sharply reduced new arrivals on neighbouring Greek Islands. However, they continue in the central Mediterranean, despite a deal with groups which control the Libyan coast to stop migrants from boarding boats, a move criticised by rights groups.
“We also need a deal with Tunisia, much like we have with Turkey, so people who depart from Libya can be rescued at sea and brought back to Tunisia,” Belgian migration minister Theo Francken said.
Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Alissa de Carbonel