BRUSSELS – Italy’s new prime minister opened his first European Union summit in bold style but ended it more meekly, yielding to a vague joint statement in which EU leaders offered little commitment to his demands on migration.
Giuseppe Conte came to Brussels aiming to persuade other states to take in a share of the thousands of economic migrants landing in Italy from boats in the Mediterranean – after years in which many had failed to accept even the smaller numbers of asylum seekers escaping wars or persecution.
But he went home with a convoluted agreement on sharing refugees only with willing countries, which could allow the most reluctant eastern European states and others to opt out with no consequences.
The mild-mannered law professor, catapulted into Italy’s top job this month despite having no political experience, took a hardline stance on his arrival at the EU summit on Thursday.
In line with the euroskeptic tones often used by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League party which back his executive, Conte first threatened to veto the summit’s conclusions.
Then he temporarily blocked the joint text, which set EU common positions on a range of issues from global trade to security.
His move was unconventional, especially for a leader on his debut, and meant to obtain more help from EU partners on migration. It yielded little result but the cancellation of a planned news conference of EU leaders on Thursday.
The final joint text, adopted on Friday, hinges on “voluntary” actions on migration from EU states.
Conte at first claimed it represented a victory, but softened his tone after League leader Matteo Salvini showed caution.
At a news conference on Friday after the two-day EU summit, he toughened it again, telling reporters he had “bullied” his peers into the migration deal. He appeared to have very different views from his German and French partners on what it meant.
Images from the long night of talks showed Conte working closely with France’s President Emmanuel Macron, with whom he reached a preliminary compromise on new centers to handle migrants’ asylum requests in willing EU countries.
But in his public statements, Conte tried to distance himself from the French president, who is in constant conflict with Italy’s Home Affairs Minister Salvini.
The Italian prime minister disputed Macron’s statements that France would be exempt from hosting migrant centers. “Macron was tired. I deny what he said,” Conte told reporters.