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  • French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2018.

    French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 28 June 2018

Italy has refused to let several migrant rescue boats dock, reopening EU divisions on the issue despite the fact arrivals have dipped sharply since Europe's migration crisis started in 2015.

Italy's far-right new premier held an EU summit hostage on Thursday, rejecting its duty of welcoming asylum seekers landing on Italian shores, with the bloc's future deemed at stake.

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Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who heads Italy's month-old populist and anti-immigration government, took the rare step of blocking the joint conclusions from the meeting in Brussels, as tensions boiled over.

"Italy does not need more words, but concrete actions," Conte told reporters as he arrived at the summit, adding that if EU leaders did not offer more help "we will not have shared conclusions."

Former law professor Conte, until recently a virtual political unknown, comes to Brussels emboldened by the announcement of an upcoming visit to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has hailed Rome's tough stance, and who himself blocked the conclusions of a recent G7 leaders meeting on trade.

European Council spokesman Preben Aamann said that after several hours of talks, conclusions on all issues from the summit — which is also dealing with trade and defense in addition to the core subject of migration — had been blocked.

"Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," an Italian source added.

A European source said the other 27 EU leaders were "astonished" and unhappy over Italy hardening its position.

"It was a very virulent discussion and everyone jumped on the Italian," a European source said.

Failure to issue a joint statement at the end of the summit on Friday would be a catastrophic show of disunity for the EU leaders, who are meeting amid warnings that authoritarian and "anti-European" movements will take advantage of their failure to tackle migration.

Merkel's political future at home also hangs in the balance over the migrant issue, and she issued a rallying call to the other European leaders to back her stance.

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

For years Europe's most powerful leader, Merkel risks seeing her fragile coalition collapse if she cannot reach deals with Italy and other countries to stop migrants initially arriving in those countries from moving on to Germany. She faces an end-of-month deadline from her own interior minister to seal pacts to curb so-called secondary migration.

European sources said several countries, including France, Italy and Spain, had proposed centers to process asylum seekers arriving on European shores.

Those eligible for asylum would then be sent to other European countries willing to take them.

But long-mulled plans for a permanent scheme to share migrants arriving in Italy and Greece around other EU countries appear doomed to fail for now, with former communist countries in Eastern Europe, particularly the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland, implacably oppose the plan.

The leaders will on Friday discuss largely French and German proposals, many watered down, to reform the euro, but notably absent is any overt support for French President Emmanuel Macron's plans for a eurozone budget.

Brexit has meanwhile been largely relegated to the sidelines of this summit, with British Prime Minister Theresa May set to update leaders after admitting the need to make "faster" progress as she arrived at the venue. EU leaders are expected on Friday to say that talks, which have stalled on the issue of the Irish border, are running out of time to get a deal.

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