VIENNA/BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany, Austria and Italy said on Thursday they would hold talks next week on how to shut down the Mediterranean route taken by tens of thousands of migrants from Africa to Europe, with Rome calling the situation urgent and “dangerous”.
The initiative came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to set up migrant transit centers along Germany’s border from which migrants refused asylum could be sent back, defusing a dispute that threatened to bring down her ruling coalition.
But the centers, meant to curb and regulate migration from Africa and the Middle East, will hinge on cooperation from other European Union nations loath to see migrant numbers accumulating on their own soil, spurring a search for cross-border solutions.
The migration crisis peaked with an influx of well over one million people in 2015 and, while annual arrivals have since tumbled, EU members have feuded over how to share the burden and support for eurosceptic, anti-immigrant parties has surged.
Under Germany’s plan for migrant centers along its boundary with Austria, migrants seeking entry who had already registered elsewhere in the EU would be sent back to that country.
This prompted Austrian worries that tighter German controls would raise the number of migrants on its own soil - anathema to the ruling coalition of conservatives and the anti-immigrant far right led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Speaking after talks with Kurz on Thursday in Vienna, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Berlin’s plan would not saddle Austria with people who had already registered elsewhere.
Kurz said Germany and Austria would work with Italy, the EU entry point for most migrants, to stem the flow from Africa.
“We agreed ... that next week there will be a meeting of the German, Austrian and Italian interior ministers with the goal of taking measures to shut the Mediterranean route into Europe, to make sure that illegal immigration to Europe on this route is stopped,” Kurz told a joint news conference.
In Rome, far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said he would try to strike a deal with Germany next week ahead of an EU interior ministers’ meeting in Innsbruck, Austria.
“Before receiving even one asylum seeker from another European country, we want to see a precise commitment giving the timetable, costs, means, men and resources on how the EU plans to help us defend our external borders,” he told reporters after meeting the deputy premier of Libya, from where most migrants board people smugglers’ boats for Europe.
“If we don’t block the flows from the south, it is a problem for everyone... The situation is dangerous,” said Salvini, adding he would visit north African countries in coming weeks to press his crackdown on illegal seaborne immigration.
Salvini made no mention of Austria.
Austria’s border with Italy includes the Brenner Pass, a vital north-south European transport corridor. Kurz has previously indicated Austrian readiness to curb movement over the hitherto open boundary barring a deal with Italy.
For her part, Merkel is consulting with EU peers including Italy and Greece, the other main first port of call for migrants entering the EU, on deals to take back migrants who first registered there before reaching Germany.
“If the talks with Greece and Italy fail, we will have to think again about measures,” said Seehofer, head of the Bavarian CSU coalition allies of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
In Berlin, Merkel received anti-immigrant Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban - the EU’s fiercest critic of her previous open-door stance on migration - for talks and the two quickly clashed over what constituted a humane solution.
Merkel said Europe was morally obliged not to “simply decouple itself from the need and suffering” of migrants and also to provide aid to impoverished, conflict-ridden African countries to help discourage their people from leaving.
“That means development aid, but also legal channels (for immigration), study places, places for skilled labor, and that must be a new partnership with Africa,” she told a joint news conference with the Hungarian premier.
Orban, who romped to re-election in April after what critics said was a campaign demonizing refugees, followed by legislation to prosecute rights groups who help them, said the EU could best display humanity by sealing its borders to deter migrants from undertaking perilous sea journeys in the first place.
“By (doing so), we are... protecting not just Hungary but Germany,” he said.
At a summit late last month, EU leaders agreed to share out refugees on a voluntary basis, create “controlled centers” to process asylum requests and share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea, a central demand of Italy.
The deal was criticized for its vagueness, leaving unclear how the burden would be fairly distributed when member states can choose not to help their peers.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland quickly repeated their refusal to take in any migrants.
Before his meeting in Vienna with Kurz, Seehofer said he was confident of clearing the other obstacle to the migrant centers plan - securing the support of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Merkel’s unwieldy “grand coalition”.
The SPD has voiced concern that transit centers could amount to internment facilities for refugees that would violate their civil liberties.
Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Thomas Escritt and Joseph Nasr in Berlin with additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Gareth Jones