EU leaders face tough negotiations on the refugee crisis at the two-day meeting.
The EU heads of state and government will discuss a controversial proposal to set up asylum-seeker processing centres in northern Africa.
Ahead of the summit, Italy said on Wednesday it had reached a deal with Malta to end the dilemma of a rescue ship stranded for five days with more than 230 people on board.
The Lifeline will dock in Malta, but other countries including Italy and France will also receive the migrants.
Italy’s interior minister has accused the NGO-run ships of operating a “taxi service” for migrants and said that such ships would never be allowed in Italian ports again.
The dispute over the Lifeline echoes that which surrounded the Aquarius, whose 630 refugees were finally taken to the Spanish port of Valencia last week, after being blocked by Italy and Malta.
Italy’s new populist government has closed its ports to rescue ships operated by charities in the Mediterranean, saying its EU partners must share the burden of looking after migrants picked up off Libya's coast.
Member states are deeply divided over how to handle the flow of Europe-bound refugees, despite a significant drop in arrivals. So far this year, 43,000 people have travelled by sea, with most - 16,000 - arriving in Italy followed Spain, Greece and Cyprus, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Almost 1000 are believed to have died in the Mediterranean Sea.
Germany requested a last-minute emergency meeting ahead of Thursday’s summit, which was held on Sunday and attended by 16 leaders in Brussels.
Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia - which have refused to accept relocated refugees - boycotted that meeting.
In his pre-summit invitation letter, Council President Donald Tusk said, “A precondition for a genuine EU migration policy is that Europeans effectively decide who enters European territory. Failure to achieve this goal would in fact be a manifestation of our weakness, and above all, it could create the impression that Europe does not have an external border.
“The people of Europe expect us - and they have done for a long time now - to show determination in our actions aimed at restoring their sense of security. People want this not because they have, all of a sudden, become xenophobic and want to put up walls against the rest of the world, but because it is the job of every political authority to enforce the law, to protect its territory and the border. That was, after all, the purpose of creating border guards - to guard borders.”
Speaking to German newspaper Die Welt, Parliament’s EPP group leader Manfred Weber urged EU leaders to extend Frontex’s mandate, “so that EU border protection in exceptional cases in Africa can be ensure not only by police officers but, if necessary, by soldiers.”
He added, “In future it must also be possible for Frontex to protect Europe’s external borders in case of an emergency, even if the Schengen rules are not adhered to and the government in the country concerned is against such a deployment of the EU border guards.”
Weber also said financial aid should be granted to north African countries “so that they can work with us on the migration issue.”
He also supported the idea to set up asylum-seeker processing centres outside the EU; “The aim is to provide protection and a point of contact for refugees, or to bring them directly from the Mediterranean or European external borders to new asylum centres in north African countries. It should then be decided who is entitled to asylum. Those in need of protection should be relocated to Europe safely and legally.
“It would be best to set up a first centre in a third country by the end of the year. At the same time, the EU should agree on a roadmap for external border management. We need tangible results. Discussions have been going on long enough.”
However, S&D group deputy Claude Moraes, who chairs Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, rejected the idea of offshore centres. He told the Guardian that Parliament would block the use of EU funds for such centres, because “we think these ideas are extreme and we are not going to touch them”.
He added, “Offshoring has been tried before. It is not an asylum system in our view, because you wouldn’t guarantee human rights, you wouldn’t guarantee proper processing and you wouldn’t have any guarantee that someone who had any asylum claim would end up in the European Union.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Greens joint leader Ska Keller said, “We cannot outsource our responsibilities to protect those in need to other countries with terrible human rights records and a history of torture or enslavement, like Libya.”
The German MEP added, “We cannot expect Italy and Greece to process and accommodate all the people who arrive on their islands and beaches by themselves, while other countries simply ignore the situation. The European Parliament has proposed, with a large majority, to replace the current Dublin system by binding refugee quotas. The heads of state and government should take this as a benchmark for their summit. It's high time for a European solution based on the principle of solidarity.”
At the summit, leaders will also discuss the economy, in particular, a plan by France and Germany to establish a eurozone budget. The current trade spat between the EU and US is also expected to be on the summit agenda.
Ahead of the meeting, European business said they support “EU leaders in their actions against protectionism.”
Concerning EMU, BusinessEurope President Emma Marcegaglia said, “Investors need a safe and predictable environment based on a well-functioning Economic and Monetary Union. We count on the European Council to take concrete steps to strengthen EMU rapidly, starting with a fully-fledged Banking Union and Capital Markets Union.”
She added, “We support strengthening the long-term stability of EMU and its ability to handle asymmetric shocks through access to a Euro-area stabilisation fund, fully conditional on member states implementing structural reforms and without increasing the overall tax burden. We welcome the European Commission’s proposal for an investment protection scheme and hope, the EU will agree to build up the capacity of this in future years.”