BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU leaders have succeeded on Friday in achieving a fiercely-fought agreement to control immigration, but the immediate criticism has been described as vague, difficult to implement and potential threat to human rights.
Irregular migration has fallen sharply since 2015, when more than one million people came to the EU is still a major concern of the EU's 500 million citizens.
(Migration and asylum in the EU: tmsnrt.rs/2txGJM3)
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte are under intense pressure at home to ensure that fewer people from all over the Mediterranean land on their land and the Eastern European leaders are bitterly against accepting them.
The summit meeting of all 28 EU Heads of State and Government ended almost with brusqueness as they moved in opposite directions, met repeatedly on Thursdays and parted, and could not reach an agreement until the Friday morning.
They agreed to further tighten the EU's external borders and spend more money on projects in Africa designed to prevent emigration. But the wording of their joint statement was very confused – a result of their different priorities.
"Europe has decided, even when it takes time, to protect its citizens but also to live up to its laws and its history and the protection of the most vulnerable," said French President Emmanuel Macron, who negotiated the treaty after nine hours of negotiations sealed.
Merkel has sought air in the showdown with her coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, which demands a tougher immigration policy.
She called the summit agreement a "right step in the right direction".
"What we have achieved together is perhaps more than I expected," said the EU's longest-serving leader to reporters.
Conte, who demands that other EU states do much more to help Italy with migrants, abducted the summit for several hours. He later said that he had not promised Merkel that Italy would take back people who had come to Germany after passing through Italy.
Such "secondary migration" should not be governed by EU rules, but has proven to be unstoppable within the European zone of non-taxable travel.
Conte stormed his very first EU summit with an initial threat to block all of the Assembly's agreements – which also affected trade, security, Brexit, and Eurozone reform.
That forced the negotiations all night long and was praised by his tough interior minister in Rome, Matteo Salvini.
Finally, Conte secured the language, he said that Italy was no longer solely responsible for all people rescued at sea, while Merkel received anti-secondary-funding formulations she needed in Berlin.
The 2014 summit chairman Donald Tusk said this was one of the toughest rounds of his career.
"It is far too early to talk about success and we have reached an agreement," Tusk said at a press conference. "But that's actually the simplest part of the task, compared to what awaits us on the ground when we start implementing it."
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite admitted it was "a success" that the countries did not fail while new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it was "not the best deal … but it was an agreement".
Their two countries represent two rival sides of the series. Coastal states on the Mediterranean want their EU counterparts to welcome newcomers.
The former communist states in the east of the EU – led by Poland and Hungary – have mostly refused to accept migrants. This bothers wealthy destination countries like Germany as well as the southern countries.
The summit agreed that any resettlement of people in the block was only voluntary, a welcome breakthrough for the Easterners. Some diplomats said the compromise makes the immigration agreement contradictory and weak.
The EU offered more money to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the EU agreed to seek a comprehensive migration agreement with Morocco. A 2016 with Ankara truncated sea arrivals to Greece.
CALL THEM NOT TO CAMPS
United Nations data shows that so far only about 45,000 people have reached the EU by the sea this year, as the bloc has gradually become more restrictive.
At the summit, EU leaders agreed to consider setting up sites around the Mediterranean, both inside and outside the EU, to handle asylum applications and return those whose requests fail.
EU officials insist that such places are not "warehouses".
The issue was quickly criticized by the aid organization Oxfam, which said EU leaders "respond to internal disputes by reducing the space for asylum seekers" and "shifting their responsibilities to countries outside the EU".
To avert such criticism, the EU wants the US refugee and migration agencies to operate such sites.
It was a sign of the depth of the EU's dividing lines that the crisis of the Brexit negotiations was far down the agenda of the summit.
The heads of state and government of the other 27 EU countries agreed to step up pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May to overcome the rifts in her administration and bring the negotiations to a halt. There are only nine months left before Britain leaves the EU.
"This is the last call to put the cards on the table," summit chairman Donald Tusk told reporters.
Michel Barnier, chief block negotiator, reiterated his warning that "time is short."
In other summit holdings, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he would travel to Washington at the end of July to ease tensions in the trade after EU leaders decided against protectionism.
They also agreed on Friday that the ESM rescue fund should play a bigger role in a more integrated eurozone, but left the details to December and difficult issues like a eurozone budget or a deposit guarantee for an undefined future.
Macron has campaigned for deeper integration into the Eurozone since his election last year, but has encountered opposition from Germany and its allies, fearing to share more responsibility with other governments.
Reports by Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski, Elizabeth Piper, Alissa de Carbonnel, Richard Lough, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Philip Blenkinsop, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Andreas Rinke, Peter Maushagen, Noah Barkin, Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Arrangement by Andrew Roche