BRUSSELS – European immigration and a row over US eavesdropping are set to dominate an EU leaders' summit beginning in Brussels on Thursday, after a deadly shipwreck off Italy shocked the continent.
The deaths of hundreds of migrants trying to reach Europe has triggered a barrage of calls for action to prevent the Mediterranean Sea from turning into what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius labelled an "open-air cemetery."
The summit comes weeks after Italy's worst refugee disaster in which a boat carrying mainly Eritrean asylum-seekers caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the coast of Lampedusa island on October 3, killing 364 migrants.
Meanwhile a growing row over secret US electronic surveillance is also expected to be at the forefront of the talks.
Officially, the two-day talks are themed around boosting employment and the digital economy, and Fabius said President Francois Hollande would raise the issue of data privacy at the summit
"It is not possible to develop (Europe's) digital sphere without protecting personal data," he said.
But Europe's battered southern economies – including Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Spain – are determined to focus on the tide of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East which they say they are being left to cope with alone.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already urged European leaders to bolster the EU's Frontex border agency and bring forward Eurosur, a planned satellite-and-drone surveillance programme to detect migrant ships in trouble.
Frontex reportedly saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the last two years, but has seen its budget fall from 118 million euros ($162 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year due to crisis-era belt-tightening.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy have added their voices to Letta's demand for the European Union to share the burden.
Italy says migrant numbers increased fourfold this year to 30,000, while Spain says twice as many Africans – 3,000 – have tried to slip through its barbed-wire territory of Melilla in north Morocco this year.
Analysts say it is high time for the EU to define a common policy that will address how to respond jointly to refugees from conflict and migrants in search of a better life.
"Far too many people are dying every year at the EU's external borders," said Yves Pascouau of the European Policy Centre think-tank.
With the unprecedented refugee flight from Syria's civil war, "EU leaders cannot escape answering the remaining questions any longer," he added.
Officials sent to Rome are to feed back initial ideas in time for the summit.
But despite pressure for concrete action, diplomats say they expect little more than agreement to examine limited "short-term" moves, and hard actions were absent from draft conclusions.
One EU ambassador said immigration was a hot political issue ahead of European Parliament elections due in May, especially for far-right groups. "The likes of the UK Independence Party and Marine Le Pen in France are making this a big issue for the EU," said the ambassador, who did not want to be named. AFP