European leaders failed to breach bitter divisions over migration during a mini-summit in Brussels Sunday, making chances increasingly slim they will reach any significant deal for managing the ongoing influx of economic migrants and asylum-seekers at a full-blown European Union meeting later this week.
Still, some leaders cited modest progress on a few issues -- including a plan to set up migrant reception centers that is backed by France and Spain -- even as Italy called for a major overhaul of the EU’s current system of dealing with migration.
"I think it was better than expected, there was some progress that has been achieved," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, echoing a similar assessment by his Spanish counterpart, with both describing frank exchanges in the afternoon meeting.
WATCH: Europe migrants
French President Emmanuel Macron said the leaders discussed closer cooperation with non-EU countries, such as transit countries, in managing migration flows, as well as secondary migration movements within the bloc.
"We need to improve the internal functioning [of migration] to have an approach that is above all pragmatic, efficient, which fights against illegal migration but doesn’t go against our principles," Macron said, describing what he saw as a consensus achieved during the meeting.
Yet agreement on a broad, overarching migration plan appeared elusive, and the summit was handicapped from the start, after being boycotted by eastern European countries deeply hostile over pressure to take in more asylum-seekers.
Their position, shared by Austria, stands in sharp contrast to a multiple-point plan outlined by Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte on Sunday that would increase responsibility for all EU countries in dealing with migrants, including handling asylum claims of those arriving on Italian and other European shores.
"At this moment, the only thing that can be done is laying the groundwork of what a consensus could look like in the future," said Marie de Somer, a migration expert at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think-tank. "The divides are too deep to see a compromise arriving within the next few days."
The meeting came even as new reports came in of migrants stranded at sea, some in rickety boats off the Libyan coast and others in humanitarian rescue ships that have so far failed to be granted entrance at a European port.
A recent poll shows migration tops European concerns -- even as the number of migrants arriving to European shores has plummeted in recent months -- to just 41,000 so far this year, compared to a high of 1.2 million in 2015.
"The crisis now is not a migration crisis, it’s not a crisis of numbers, it’s a political crisis," de Somer said.
The political stakes are indeed high across the 28-member bloc where anti-migrant sentiment has catapulted populists to power in Italy, Austria and Hungary, and helped shape the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
They may be the highest for Chancellor Angela Markel of Germany, which has taken in the lion’s share of asylum-seekers. She faces intense pressure to bring home a European migration deal this week that more fairly spreads the burden, or risk possible collapse of her coalition government.
Merkel left the summit saying there was "a lot of goodwill" during the meeting, and participants agreed to strengthen external borders and share the migration burden among all countries.
The apparent progress Sunday on "secondary" migration movements, including those reaching Germany, may help ease the political pressure Merkel faces. Her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has threatened to turn migrants away if EU leaders fail to reach agreement on these flows.
There was also some support for screening African migrants heading to Europe in North Africa and the Balkans, an idea that has sparked some concern about migrant rights, particularly after a 2016 EU migrant deal with Turkey.
Amnesty International described such reception centers as "docking platforms for refugees and asylum-seekers," and called their creation as "irresponsible as it is dangerous."
Analyst de Somer called it "worrisome" that ideas such as the reception centers is "taken on when EU members states have difficulties finding solutions and compromises. So instead of looking inwards, they look outwards."
No game changer
There was little chance Sunday’s meeting would be a game changer -- especially after four eastern European states, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- announced they would boycott it. Along with Austria, the four countries strongly oppose migrant quotas that would see them taking in more migrants, citing security risks.
Currently, frontline Mediterranean states, notably Italy and Greece, are grappling with the bulk of new arrivals, and asylum demands skewed toward western Mediterranean and richer northern European states. In 2017, for example, Germany received nearly a quarter-million requests for refugee status and Italy nearly 130,000 -- compared to just over 5,000 for Poland.
Analyst de Somer believes progress in forging a European migration plan might be made incrementally, for example threats of ending the open-border Schengen system, which is popular among Europeans, to get eastern European countries to accept more migrants.
"Perhaps the outlook of losing Schengen can move things in the near future," she said.
For his part, Macron has called for sanctions against states refusing to take in migrants -- a stance that has drawn ire from Italy’s new government and is likely to be unpopular with eastern Europeans as well.
The differences have sometimes turned personal, with Italy’s new hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini most recently calling Macron "arrogant."
"France will accept lessons from nobody," Macron responded, noting the country ranked second in the number of asylum requests so far this year.
Meanwhile, the migrants themselves remained front and center in European news Sunday, as one humanitarian vessel remained stranded at sea in search of a safe harbor. Meanwhile, Italy reportedly rejected the request of another, Proactiva, to rescue several migrant boats in apparent distress, passing on the burden to the Libyan coast guard.
Earlier this month, Italy’s refused to accept another migrant rescue ship, Aquarius. The vessel ultimately docked in the Spanish port of Valencia.