Updated Friday 10.35am

European leaders reached a deal on migration in the early hours of Friday after tense and lengthy talks, but the pledges made to strengthen borders were vague and a bleary-eyed German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded differences remained.

Under the agreement, reached after nine hours of often stormy talks, EU leaders agreed to share out refugees arriving in the bloc on a voluntary basis and create "controlled centres" inside the European Union to process asylum requests.

They also agreed to share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea, a key demand of Italy's new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

"Italy is not alone anymore," he said.

Conte, whose government includes the anti-establishment 5-Star movement and far-right League, had earlier refused to endorse a summit text on security and trade until other leaders had pledged to help Italy manage Mediterranean arrivals.

The Brussels meeting underscored how Europe's 2015 spike in immigration continues to haunt the bloc, despite a sharp drop in arrivals of people fleeing conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa.

It took place in an atmosphere of political crisis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel under intense political pressure at home to take a firmer stance on migration.

Merkel, speaking to reporters at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT), sought to put a positive spin on the result, saying it was a good signal that leaders had been able to agree a common text on the migration issue.

But she acknowledged that the bloc still had "a lot of work to do to bridge the different views."

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has sharply criticised Italy for refusing to allow a migrant rescue ship into its ports, said European cooperation had "won the day".

In a final statement full of convoluted language designed to satisfy the divergent views, 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.

It was unclear whether the deal would be enough to appease Merkel's coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has threatened to shut Bavaria's border to migrants. That could trigger the collapse of her three-month-old government as well as the EU's Schengen zone of free travel.

German Chancellor Merkel leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels.German Chancellor Merkel leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels.

TORTURED

Diplomats described a tense, tortured meeting with small groups of leaders huddled together in a desperate bid to break the deadlock and avert the humiliation of heading home without having produced an agreement.

Early in the evening, Merkel and Conte set aside 45 minutes for a chat, only to break it off after 20 minutes when the Italian leader rejected the German leader's overtures, according to diplomats.

Before the dinner clash over migration started, Conte, head of a new government that includes the anti-establishment 5-Star movement and far-right League, refused to endorse a summit text on security and trade until other leaders had bowed to his demands to help Italy manage the Mediterranean arrivals.

That forced the summit chairman Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cancel their pre-planned news conference.

"It is so toxic. They go into the room, clash, storm out, go back again, clash again. With no end in sight," said one exasperated diplomat as dawn approached.

"It's pure politics driving this, emotions are flying as high as back in 2015," another EU diplomat said.

Fewer than 45,000 migrants have made it to the European Union this year, according to United Nations data, a sharp drop from the wave of 2015 when many thousands were entering on a daily basis.

But the political tremors are still being felt across Europe, with populist, anti-immigrant parties on the rise in many countries.

Ex-communist easterners led by Poland and Hungary are still refusing to accept a share of the new arrivals to alleviate the burden on countries like Italy and Greece.

 

Details

1. The European Council reconfirms that a precondition for a functioning EU policy relies on a comprehensive approach to migration which combines more effective control of the EU's external borders... This is a challenge not only for a single Member State, but for Europe as a whole.

2. The European Council is determined... to prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes.

3. As regards the Central Mediterranean Route, efforts to stop smugglers operating out of Libya or elsewhere should be further intensified. The EU will continue to stand by Italy and other frontline member states in this respect.

A migrant child is carried out from the charity ship Lifeline at Boiler Wharf in Senglea. Photo: ReutersA migrant child is carried out from the charity ship Lifeline at Boiler Wharf in Senglea. Photo: Reuters

4. As regards the Eastern Mediterranean Route, additional efforts are needed to fully implement the EU-Turkey Statement, prevent new crossings from Turkey and bring the flows to a halt. More efforts are urgently needed to ensure swift returns and prevent the development of new sea or land routes. In the light of the recent increase in flows in the Western Mediterranean, the EU will support, financially and otherwise, all efforts by member states, especially Spain, and countries of origin and transit, in particular Morocco, to prevent illegal migration.

5. In order to definitively break the business model of the smugglers, thus preventing tragic loss of life, it is necessary to eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys. This requires a new approach based on shared or complementary actions among the Member States to the disembarkation of those who are saved in Search And Rescue operations. In that context, the European Council calls on the Council and the Commission to swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms, in close cooperation with relevant third countries as well as UNHCR and IOM. Such platforms should operate distinguishing individual situations, in full respect of international law and without creating a pull factor.

6. On EU territory, those who are saved, according to international law, should be taken charge of, on the basis of a shared effort, through the transfer in controlled centres set up in member states, only on a voluntary basis, where rapid and secure processing would allow, with full EU support, to distinguish between irregular migrants, who will be returned, and those in need of international protection, for whom the principle of solidarity would apply. All the measures in the context of these controlled centres, including relocation and resettlement, will be on a voluntary basis, without prejudice to the Dublin reform.

7. The European Council agrees on launching the second tranche of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and at the same time on transferring 500 million euro from the 11th EDF reserve to the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

8. Tackling the migration problem at its core requires a partnership with Africa aiming at a substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent...

9. In the context of the next multi-annual Financial Framework, the European Council underlines the need for flexible instruments, allowing for fast disbursement, to combat illegal migration. The internal security, integrated border management, asylum and migration funds should therefore include dedicated, significant components for external migration management.

10. The European Council recalls the need for member states to ensure the effective control of the EU's external borders with EU financial and material support. It also underlines the necessity to significantly step up the effective return of irregular migrants.

11. Concerning the situation internally in the EU, secondary movements of asylum seekers between Member States risk jeopardising the integrity of the Common European Asylum System and the Schengen acquis. Member states should take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to counter such movements and to closely cooperate amongst each other to that end.

12. As regards the reform for a new Common European Asylum System, much progress has been achieved... A consensus needs to be found on the Dublin Regulation to reform it based on a balance of responsibility and solidarity, taking into account the persons disembarked following Search And Rescue operations.

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