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EU Leaders Reach Agreement On Migrant Crisis

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The MV Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, arrives with 234 migrants onboard in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, on Wednesday.
Matthew Mirabelli, AFP/Getty Images

The MV Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, arrives with 234 migrants onboard in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, on Wednesday.

After hours of often-acrimonious debate, European Union leaders meeting in Brussels resolved to create voluntary joint processing sites to restrict refugees' movement within the bloc while asylum claims are under consideration and to strength efforts to return those who don't qualify.

However, much of the agreement — which comes amid an ongoing crisis over the influx of mainly North African and Middle Eastern refugees arriving by sea — is voluntary and it remains to be seen whether EU member states will follow through.

Although the deal could count as a win for leaders such as Germany's embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel, even she acknowledged that there was "a lot of work to do to bridge the different views."

Merkel has been besieged over the issue. Briefing German lawmakers in the Bundestag on Thursday, she had to fend off hecklers from the country's right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party.

The Bavaria-based Christian Social Union has also threatened to quit Merkel's coalition and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is a member of the CSU, has threatened unilaterally to turn back migrants at the German border if a satisfactory EU deal is not reached.

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The migrant crisis, which began in 2015, has slowed considerably in recent years, but it has nonetheless stoked nativist sentiments in such countries as Italy, where a new government includes the right wing, anti-immigrant League party.

According to the BBC, Italy — which has borne many of the thousands of migrants in recent years — had threated to veto the summit if it did not get help.

Italy's new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, put a positive spin on Thursday's meeting, saying, "Italy is not alone anymore."

In recent weeks, Italy has refused to receive any additional migrants, turning back to rescue ships with several hundred refugees each. Link.

As France24 notes, "Italy's stance has revived political tensions in the EU... and sparked warnings that authoritarian movements will take advantage of any failure to tackle migration."

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was highly critical of Italy for refusing refugees, said European cooperation had "won the day."

Reuters reports that the final agreement was "full of convoluted language designed to satisfy the divergent views."

The news agency said, "the leaders agreed to restrict migrant moves within the bloc but made clear virtually all of their pledges would be carried out on a 'voluntary basis' by member states."

They also agreed to tighten their external border and increase financing for Turkey, Morocco and other North African states to prevent migration to Europe."

On that voluntary basis, EU nations agreed to share the refugee burden by creating "controlled centers" inside the EU to process requests, according to Reuters.

The agreement further calls for efforts to break up people smuggling operations, and to be more aggressive in returning refugees who do not qualify for asylum.

The Associated Press reports that the United Nation's migration and refugee agencies praised the deal but cautioned that details need to be spelled out and that the African Union's buy-in is "indispensable."

Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, was quoted by AP as saying the organization was "very pleased at the solidarity and consensus" that emerged from an EU summit in Brussels, in particular with the "frontline states" like Italy.

Meanwhile, Charlie Yaxley, a representative for refugee agency UNHCR, told the AP that it was "still awaiting the legal analysis" of the summit's outcome, but would welcome greater collaboration on asylum.

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