Italy, Spanish aid group at odds over 1,000 migrants at sea

The leaders of about 16 countries - more than half the 28-nation bloc - will take part in what is being billed as "informal talks" in Brussels on Sunday ahead of a full European Union summit next Thursday and Friday, where migration will top the agenda.

But several countries with anti-migrant governments have bitterly opposed Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also faces pressure by her own government to tighten her liberal approach to asylum.

Sunday's meeting was aimed at clearing the air before a full European Union summit on Thursday and Friday.

The summit is not only a lifeline for Merkel, but an attempt to save the EU's 26-country border-free travel zone, seen as one of the EU's crowning achievements.

Epa06832472 (FILE) - A handout photo made available by German NGO Mission Lifeline shows migrants rescued in global waters of the Mediterranean Sea onboard of the dutch flagged vessel LIFELINE, 21 June 2018 (reissued 23 June 2018). Last week, he refused to allow the Aquarius, a ship that picked up hundreds of people, to dock.

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

Speaking in Paris after meeting with new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Macron said European countries would take in migrants who qualify to apply for asylum, helping to remove the burden of caring for them from Mediterranean nations on the front line like Italy or Spain.

The four former communist states, who have ducked out of Sunday's talks, have always been opposed to taking in migrants. She pointed out that Italy would never deny migrants their rights.

Reflecting the mounting anger over the lack of assistance from its partners, Italy's new government has refused to admit foreign-flagged rescue ships, accusing them of abetting traffickers.

Migrants not entitled to asylum should be returned directly to their country of origin and not via other countries, Macron said.

Meanwhile, Ms Merkel enjoyed a lead over hard-liners in a popularity poll in Bavaria, suggesting she still has room to manoeuvre in a government rift over border security.

Her hardline interior minister Horst Seehofer has given her until the end of June to find a European deal to curb new arrivals.

There was tension between Italy and France, too.

Spain, Malta, but especially Greece and Italy, are at the forefront of the migration route and have long pushed for the reform of the Dublin regulation, which states that the first country of entry should be the country examining the asylum application.

With an agreement appearing elusive, Germany says it is now pushing for "bilateral, trilateral and multilateral" deals.

On Saturday, Spain also announced it had rescued 569 more migrants at sea, many from boats in the Strait of Gibraltar, a busy shipping lane with treacherous currents. "Evidently, the previous Italian governments told him that the problem did not exist...", he said on Facebook.

The draft conclusions included calls to speed up returns to countries tasked with processing them, such as Italy, causing anger in Rome.

At the upcoming European Union summit, Europe's leaders are expected to call for a further tightening of the bloc's external borders and endorse giving more money to foreign counties to dissuade people from heading to Europe.

The EU struck a cash-for-repatriation deal with Turkey in March 2016 and engaged Lybian coast guard in cracking down on migrant trafficking, following the peak year of 2015 which saw more than one million irregular migrants flocking to Europe via different routes.

The rhetoric ahead of the Sunday summit extended north, with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz saying his country would reintroduce controls on its border with Italy if neighboring Germany were to turn back migrants at its border to Austria.

  • Jon Douglas