EU leaders tackle political flare-up over migrants

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waits for guests at the start of an emergency European Union leaders summit on immigration at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. Reuters photo.

EU leaders headed to Brussels for emergency talks Sunday over migration as Italy's new populist cabinet turned away another rescue ship, vowing no longer to shoulder Europe's migrant burden.

The talks involving 16 of the bloc's 28 leaders aim to mend rifts over burden-sharing but also to shore up German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pressed by her own government to tighten her liberal approach to asylum.

The meeting was called last week to clear the air before a scheduled full summit on Thursday and Friday.

With four eastern anti-migrant EU countries snubbing the meeting, Merkel and other leaders have downplayed hopes of an EU-wide agreement, saying smaller ad-hoc deals may be the only way forward.

The urgency of finding a solution was highlighted by the plight of the Lifeline, the second rescue vessel left adrift in the Mediterranean after Italy and neighbouring Malta refused it permission to dock.

The German charity operating the ship, which is carrying 239 Africans, on Sunday took a swipe at Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini over his reference in a Facebook post to its consignment of "human flesh".

"Dear Matteo Salvini, we have no meat on board, but humans," it said in a statement.

In a sign of the growing tensions within the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested Saturday that countries who refused to pull their weight on accepting asylum seekers should have their EU benefits cut.

In a dig at Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, he said "countries that benefit massively from EU solidarity" could not invoke "national self-interest when it comes to the issue of migrants".

The four former communist states, who have ducked out of Sunday's talks, have long been opposed to taking in migrants.

Macron also riled Italy, the main landing point for African migrants, by saying that the migration emergency, which peaked in 2015, had passed and was now mainly a political issue.

"The immigration emergency continues in Italy, partly because France keeps pushing back people at the border," Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio shot back on his Facebook page, warning Macron risked turning France into "Italy's number one enemy" on the issue.

Since assuming office several weeks ago, Italy's new government has refused to admit foreign-flagged rescue ships packed with hundreds of migrants.

After turning away the Aquarius, which later docked in Spain, Rome vowed Saturday to block the Lifeline.

Reflecting popular anger over the failure of EU members to shoulder more of the migrant burden, Rome has pledged not to take in any more asylum-seekers.

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EU leaders tackle political flare-up over migrants

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