VALLETTA, Malta — The leaders of nine southern European Union countries met in Malta on Friday to discuss common challenges such as migration, the EU’s management of which has vexed national governments in Europe for years.
The nations represented at the one-day huddle included host Malta, France, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. Slovenia and Croatia, with Adriatic Sea coasts, were added to the so-called “Med Group” in 2021. While Portugal has a long Atlantic Ocean border, the European Union considers it partially in the Mediterranean region.
Two top EU officials — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel — were invited to the closed-door meeting. The leaders of the EU’s 27 nations have an informal European Council meeting scheduled for next week in Spain.
The huddle’s main aim is to help develop consensus among the members on major issues concerning all EU countries.
However, unity on migration has been elusive, as witnessed in Brussels during a Thursday meeting of interior ministers, who are tasked with enforcing individual nations’ rules within the broader contours of EU regulations.
Italy, for example, which now receives by far the largest number of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean Sea, has pushed in vain for fellow EU nations to show solidarity by accepting more of the tens of thousands of people who reach its shores.
Many of the migrants are rescued by military boats, humanitarian vessels or merchant ships plying the waters crossed by migrant smugglers’ unseaworthy boats launched from Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and elsewhere. Earlier this month, some 8,000 migrants stepped ashore on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian fishing island, in barely 48 hours, overwhelming the tourist destination.
The relentless arrivals, which slow only when seas are rough, have put political pressure on one of the Malta summit’s attendees — Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni. She came to power a year ago after campaigning on a pledge to stop illegal migration, including with a naval blockade, if necessary.
Under current EU rules, the nation where asylum-seekers arrive must shelter them while their applications are processed. In Italy’s case, the majority of migrants arriving by sea from Africa and Asian countries are fleeing poverty, not war or persecution, and aren’t eligible for asylum.
But because Italy has so few repatriation agreements with home countries, it is stymied in sending unsuccessful applicants back. Many migrants slip out of Italy and into northern Europe, their ultimate destination, in hopes of finding family or work.
Little progress has been made on a new EU pact as the member states bicker over which country should take charge of migrants when they arrive and whether other countries should be obligated to help.
Three years after unveiling a plan for sweeping reform of the European Union’s outdated asylum rules, such squabbling fuels doubt as to whether an overhaul will ever become reality.
While heads of government or state represented most countries at Friday’s summit, Spain sent its acting foreign minister because Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was involved in discussions at home on forming a new government.
While the talks in Malta were heavily concentrated on migration, other common challenges, including climate change, economic growth and continued EU support for Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s February 2022 invasion were also on the agenda.
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration