PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte agreed Friday to work together to pursue changes to the European Union’s migration rules, finding common ground after the issue created a rift between their countries.
The two leaders said during a joint news conference that EU regulations requiring asylum-seekers to apply in the first country they enter and remain there while their cases are processed were not working.
Macron said the policy and others have left Italy, usually the first European country reached on the busy migration route across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, without the support that is supposed to be a benefit of a united Europe.
“The proper response is European, but the existing European response has not adapted,” said the French leader, who is seen as strongly pro-EU.
Conte, who heads the populist, anti-EU government that took over running Italy on June 1, echoed the politician he called “my friend Emmanuel.”
“The concept itself of the ‘state of first entry’ must be rethought. He who puts his feet in Italy puts his feet in Europe,” said Conte, who was a law professor before he became premier.
They also both called for steps to beef up Europe’s borders to prevent illegal immigration.
Macron cited an initiative of his government last year to establish “protection missions” that pre-screen asylum-seekers in Chad and Niger to prevent citizens of the two west African countries from risking the dangerous sea journey.
Conte said Italy is working on a proposal for a “radical paradigm change” in Europe’s approach to managing mass migration that includes creating “hotspots” in the most common countries of origin and departure to identify asylum candidates.
These “centers of European protection” would “anticipate and speedup identification and requests for asylum,” he said.
The meeting between Macron and Conte at the Elysee Palace in Paris almost did not take place after the president offered a harsh assessment of Italy’s refusal to accept a private rescue ship carrying 629 migrants. Macron accused the new Italian government of “cynicism” and “irresponsible” behavior.
The migrants who were rescued last Saturday remained at sea Friday. Italy denied the Aquarius a place to dock, insisting it was Malta’s responsibility. After Malta also refused and pointed the ship toward Italy, Spain’s new Socialist prime minister offered the passengers safe harbor Monday. The Aquarius is currently en route to Valencia, where it is expected to arrive on Sunday.
Standing alongside Macron, Conte said it was “time to turn the page” on the diplomatic tensions over the ship and to tackle the larger migration quagmire.
As Conte and Macron mended fences in Paris, Italy’s foreign minister met with his Maltese counterpart in Rome to discuss the clash. They expressed “the shared desire to work together in tight coordination, especially in European capitals, about migration in terms of revising” the EU asylum regulations, according to an Italian foreign ministry statement.
Pope Francis referred to this week’s standoff for the second time in as many days Friday, saying the Gospel teaches that it’s wrong to leave migrants “at the mercy of the waves.”
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.