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BRUSSELS -- European leaders met Sunday to discuss a deal for managing migration, an issue threatening to topple German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government and unravel the bloc's passport-free travel area.

"There was a lot of goodwill today and, next to a few differences, a large amount of common ground," Merkel said after the informal gathering of leaders in Brussels. "We will continue to work toward a solution."

Those participating in the meeting had different priorities: Frontier countries, including Italy, seek more assistance from their peers with border protection and a more equitable allocation of migrants between the bloc's member states. Northern countries, including Germany, want to limit "secondary movements" of protection seekers from the south, where they initially apply for asylum, to the more affluent states of the European core.

Even though new arrivals have dropped, the political consequences of migration pressures are still reverberating around Europe. At stake could be the European Union's prized borderless movement in the area known as the Schengen zone, which is the foundation for many other aspects of European integration.

"The first priority if we want to save free movement within the Schengen zone is to ensure a real and strict control of European borders," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel ahead of the meeting. He said leaders planned to try to sort out the legality of a range of ideas intended to clamp down on illegal migration.

One proposal from European Council President Donald Tusk is to find spots outside Europe to sort economic migrants from people with legitimate asylum claims. Another from French President Emmanuel Macron is to establish closed camps inside Europe where migrants could await the outcome of their claims.

Macron blamed political posturing more than the actual migration situation for the current uproar in Europe, saying that "we are living through a political crisis more than a migratory crisis today." Anti-migrant parties -- and governments in Hungary and Italy -- have been fomenting public fears of foreigners.

"We must not give in," Macron said. "When someone has the right to protection and asylum, we should grant it."

He said that Europeans should "not forget our values."

Nobody at the summit accepted Merkel's proposal that willing member states form separate agreements where EU-wide consensus isn't possible, instead insisting on a European solution, according to an EU government official familiar with the discussion.

This is a blow for the chancellor who had promised her Bavarian allies that she would seek to overcome any stalemate in the EU with bilateral deals.

A potential failure to stem the flows of asylum seekers into Germany raises the possibility of a mutiny by Merkel's Bavarian coalition partners, which has threatened to defy the chancellor, risking a historic rift that could deny her alliance its majority.

Observers say Merkel is more vulnerable now than at any other point in her 13-year leadership.

Merkel stressed that European countries wouldn't be left alone in dealing with "primary migration" while others were left responsible for migration within the bloc. "Everyone is responsible for everything," she said.

An EU government official told reporters that Rome won't discuss a deal with Merkel on secondary migration between member-states unless it's part of a comprehensive package spreading responsibility for handling incoming protection seekers from frontline countries to the entire bloc.

Such a legal shift is opposed by hard-line governments, including Poland, Hungary and Austria, which are against mandatory quotas for the allocation of refugees.

The leaders agreed on less controversial moves, including a strengthening of the bloc's border protection forces, and on striking agreements with African countries for the repatriation of those not entitled to asylum. But "the challenge today is linked to political pressure in certain EU countries and particularly the aspect of secondary migration," Macron conceded.

Discussions are set to continue over a formal EU summit of the bloc's 28 leaders in Brussels on Thursday.

"Going back to Rome satisfied," Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a tweet. "We have the impression that we took the right direction in the ongoing debate."

New arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers coming to Europe via the Mediterranean have dropped by more than half this year compared with the same period in 2017, according to the U.N. migration agency: 40,944 people as of Wednesday.

The decline is even starker compared with 2016: It equals just 19 percent of the same period in 2016.

The decline was fostered by a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey that slowed the flow of migrants into Greece. Last year, Italy made a similar bargain with Libya.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said migrants are still crossing the Mediterranean into his country, and he urged his EU partners to help Spain deal with the problem.

Four eastern EU countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia -- refused to attend Sunday's meeting and reject taking in migrants in general.

Information for this article was contributed by Nikos Chrysoloras, Alexander Weber and Marine Strauss of Bloomberg News; by Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post; and by Raf Casert, Lorne Cook, Nicole Winfield, Barry Hatton and Kirsten Grieshaber of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/25/2018

Print Headline: Merkel, EU bloc remain divided over migrants, threat to borders

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