EU leaders have vowed to move forward with plans to screen migrants in North Africa for asylum eligibility to try to stem the flow of people making the perilous journey to Europe by sea.
It is part of a desperate attempt to shore up EU unity on an issue that has helped fuel a political crisis.
No North African countries have agreed so far to sign on to the plan being presented at a two-day EU summit, though possible EU funding that could bring billions in aid may prove persuasive.
Italy also held up any interim agreements at the summit unless it received commitments it would get help managing the waves of migrants arriving from across the Mediterranean Sea.
“Italy doesn’t need any more verbal signs, but concrete deeds,” Italian premier Giuseppe Conte said.
Based on the success of an EU-Turkey deal that outsourced responsibility for stopping migrants entering Europe to the Turkish government in exchange for refugee aid, EU leaders want to expand the idea to Africa.
The costly endeavour reflects the anxiety in Europe over migration, which has turned into a political crisis even though the number of people reaching Europe’s shores this year has dropped substantially.
A dispute over how Europe should manage migration has deepened since an anti-EU government with a strong anti-migrant streak assumed power in Italy this month.
Details are sketchy, but the proposed EU plan involves erecting a virtual wall in northern Africa by placing people who try to leave for Europe in centres in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.
European Union funds would be used to persuade the countries to sign on, though none has shown interest so far.
Morocco’s director of migration and border surveillance, Khalid Zerouali, said it is not interested in hosting a station for screening migrants, saying “that’s not the solution”.
The lack of enthusiasm for the plan in Africa has not discouraged EU leaders.
EU Council president Donald Tusk, who is chairing the two-day leaders’ summit in Brussels, said partnering with countries outside the EU is the best approach.
“The alternative to this solution would be a chaotically advancing closure of borders, also within the EU, as well as growing conflicts among EU member states,” he said.
“Some may think I am too tough in my proposals on migration. But trust me: If we don’t agree on them, then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.”
One of those “tough guys” is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who deployed troops to Hungary’s border and erected a razor-wire fence to keep migrants out.
“The invasion should be stopped, and to stop the invasion means to have a strong border,” he said.
The worsening tensions come despite a decline in the number of migrants reaching Europe.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that some 80,000 people will enter Europe by sea this year, based on current trends. That’s around half as many as in 2017.
Yet anti-migrant parties have made significant political gains, most recently in Italy, which along with Greece and Spain is among the preferred landing destinations for people from Africa.
Mrs Merkel is fighting against critics who accuse her of endangering European security with her hospitality. Her conservative coalition is under pressure from the far-right Alternative for Germany.
But she is deeply aware of the threat the issue poses to Europe, notably to its Schengen passport-free travel area — one of the jewels in the EU crown — that allows easy cross-border business and travel.
“Europe has many challenges, but that of migration could determine the fate of the European Union,” Mrs Merkel said before heading to the summit.
The partner in her coalition is demanding that migrants be turned away at Germany’s border with Austria. EU officials fear such a move would set off a domino effect, leading Austria to seal its border with Italy, and Italy to fully close its ports to migrants rescued at sea.
Brussels wants the International Organisation for Migration and the UN refugee agency to oversee the Africa plan, but they prefer to provide sanctuary to migrants inside the EU.