BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders gather in Brussels yesterday in an attempt to bridge their deep divisions over migration, an issue that has been splitting them for years and now poses a fresh threat to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Though arrivals across the Mediterranean are only a fraction of what they were in 2015, when more than a million people reached Europe, a recent opinion poll showed migration was the top concern for the EU’s 500 million citizens.
Under heavy pressure from voters at home, EU leaders have been fighting bitter battles over how to share out asylum seekers in the bloc.
Unable to agree, they have become more restrictive on asylum and tightened their external borders to let fewer people in. They have given money and aid to countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East to keep people from heading for Europe.
Only 41,000 refugees and migrants have made it to the EU across the sea so far this year, UN figures show.
But the issue has in the meantime won and lost elections for politicians across the bloc from Italy to Hungary, with voters favoring those advocating a tougher stance on migration.
On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France favored financial sanctions for EU countries that refuse migrants with proven asylum status.
Ms Merkel is under pressure because her longtime conservative allies, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), have threatened to start turning away at the German border all asylum seekers already registered elsewhere in the EU unless the bloc reaches an agreement on distributing them more evenly.
They mostly live in countries like Greece and Italy – both long overwhelmed with arrivals – or wealthy states like Germany or Sweden, where they choose to try to start a new life.
The ex-communist states in the EU’s east led by Hungary and Poland have refused to host any of the new arrivals, citing security risks after a raft of Islamist attacks in Europe.
Ms Merkel is now pushing other EU states, including Italy, to do more on migration so that fewer people get to Germany and she can convince the CSU not to go ahead with their plan.