EU faces 'destiny' at crunch migration summit

Flags of the European Union flutter ahead of the start of a European Union leaders' summit focused on migration, Brexit and eurozone reforms on in Brussels on Thursday. (AFP)

EU leaders face deep divisions on migration at a summit in Brussels on Thursday that the embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel said could decide the fate of the bloc itself.

The meeting comes amid warnings that authoritarian and "anti-European" movements will profit from any failure by the 28 leaders to deal with a flare-up of tensions over migrants that has put Merkel's political future in the balance.

The rise of Italy's new populist government and bitter rows over its refusal to take in migrants arriving on rescue boats have revived divisions, despite the fact that arrivals have dipped sharply since the 2015 migration crisis.

Italy comes to the EU gathering emboldened by the announcement that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will on July 30 visit US President Donald Trump, who has hailed Rome's tough stance.

"Europe has many challenges but migration could end up determining Europe's destiny," Merkel told German lawmakers hours ahead of the summit.

The bloc can decide to "overcome the challenge in a way that people in Africa or elsewhere believe that we are guided by our values," she said.

Or, in a manner where "no one will believe in our value system that has made us so strong."

Merkel, for years Europe's most powerful leader, now risks seeing her fragile coalition collapse if she cannot reach migrant deals with other countries including Italy's new government of far-right and anti-establishment parties.

After allowing more than one million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015, Merkel faces an end-of-the-month deadline from her own interior minister to seal pacts that would let Germany turn back asylum seekers already registered in other EU states.

The leaders hope at the summit to approve work on migrant "disembarkation platforms" in countries outside Europe, most likely in Africa, although EU officials have been vague on what form they would take.

In a bone to Merkel, the leaders will also agree to "closely cooperate" on stopping secondary movements of migrants, according to draft summit conclusions, although the language may be weaker than she would have hoped.

A "mini-summit" of 16 leaders in Brussels on Sunday failed to make much headway.

But there is no chance of agreement on a plan for mandatory "burden sharing" by moving refugees from frontline Mediterranean states like Italy and Greece to other countries.

The plan is strongly opposed by eastern European countries, particularly the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland.

The EU is rapidly moving rightwards on migration, a stance that is likely to increase when Austria under youthful conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz assumes the bloc's presidency on July 1.

EU President Donald Tusk warned on the eve of the summit that time is running out for leaders to reassure their citizens that they can control migration before populists win the "high-stakes" debate.

"More and more people are starting to believe that only strong-handed authority, anti-European and anti-liberal in spirit, with a tendency towards overt authoritarianism, is capable of stopping the wave of illegal migration," said summit host Tusk in a letter to leaders.

"The stakes are very high and time is short," he warned.

One senior EU official dubbed the summit the "mother of all summits" because of the huge number of key issues in addition to migration that leaders are under pressure to resolve at the Thursday-Friday meeting.

The leaders will on Friday discuss largely French and German proposals, many watered down, to reform the euro in an effort to avert a repeat of the debt crisis and to rebuild confidence in the single currency.

Notably absent is any overt support for Macron's plans for a eurozone budget, given the bitter opposition of the Netherlands and others.

On Brexit, EU leaders are expected on Friday to deplore a lack of progress and say talks, which have stalled on the issue of the Irish border, must be stepped up with a view to reaching a deal by October.

Leaders would "appreciate" if May gives them more details on Thursday as to the "intentions of the British government", particularly on relations after Britain leaves in 2019, a senior EU official said.

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EU faces 'destiny' at crunch migration summit

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