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BRUSSELS, June 24, 2018 (News Wires) - European Union leaders gather in Brussels on Sunday in an attempt to bridge their deep divisions over migration, an issue that has been splitting them for years and now poses a fresh threat to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Though arrivals across the Mediterranean are only a fraction of what they were in 2015, when more than a million people reached Europe, a recent opinion poll showed migration was the top concern for the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Under heavy pressure from voters at home, EU leaders have been fighting bitter battles over how to share out asylum seekers in the bloc.

Unable to agree, they have become more restrictive on asylum and tightened their external borders to let fewer people in. They have given money and aid to countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East to keep people from heading for Europe.

Only 41,000 refugees and migrants have made it to the EU across the sea so far this year, UN figures show.

But the issue has in the meantime won and lost elections for politicians across the bloc from Italy to Hungary, with voters favouring those advocating a tougher stance on migration.

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France favoured financial sanctions for EU countries that refuse migrants with proven asylum status.

Merkel is under pressure because her longtime conservative allies, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), have threatened to start turning away at the German border all asylum seekers already registered elsewhere in the EU unless the bloc reaches an agreement on distributing them more evenly.

They mostly live in countries like Greece and Italy - both long overwhelmed with arrivals - or wealthy states like Germany or Sweden, where they choose to try to start a new life.

The ex-communist states in the EU’s east led by Hungary and Poland have refused to host any of the new arrivals, citing security risks after a raft of Islamist attacks in Europe.

The bloc has been unable to break the deadlock, the bad blood spilling over to other areas of their co-operation, including crucial talks on the bloc’s next seven-year budget from 2021.

With Germany being the main contributor to the bloc’s joint coffers, the southern gateway countries were promised more money to handle migration, while the reluctant easterners face cuts in development aid.

Merkel is now pushing other EU states, including Italy, to do more on migration so that fewer people get to Germany and she can convince the CSU not to go ahead with their plan.

She opposes the idea by the CSU, which will face the anti-immigration AfD party in Bavarian elections in October, because it would mean rigid border controls inside what is normally the EU’s coveted control-free travel zone.

To placate the CSU, Merkel must get something from Sunday, arranged hastily among more than a dozen EU capitals, and also from the full summit of the bloc’s 28 leaders on June 28-29.

All EU leaders agree they must further curb immigration by working with third countries, though that often proves slow.

VATICAN CITY, June 14, 2018 (Reuters) - Pope Francis called on Thursday for a “change in mindset” on migration policies, saying international cooperation was vital, as Italy and France engaged in a diplomatic spat over the issue.

Francis made his comments in a message to participants at a conference on international migration being held in the Vatican. He called for the “shared global management of international migration in the values of justice, solidarity and compassion”.

Italy summoned France’s envoy on Wednesday and angrily rejected French criticism of its immigration policies, escalating a diplomatic row that is widening one of Europe’s main political fault lines.

A day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with “cynicism and irresponsibility” by closing its ports to a migrant ship, Italy’s economy minister canceled a Paris meeting with his counterpart and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte weighed postponing a meeting with Macron scheduled for Friday.

Francis, who has made defense of migrants and refugees a major plank of his papacy, said overcoming the current migration crisis “demands a change in mindset”.

He said countries “must move from considering others as threats to our comfort to valuing them as persons whose life experience and values can contribute greatly to the enrichment of our society.”

Rome’s clash with Paris centers on the charity ship Aquarius, which both Italy and Malta refused to let dock at their ports. It was carrying 629 migrants and is now heading to Spain, which offered safe harbor, escorted by two Italian ships.

The pope said the trans-national dimension of the migration crisis required “the assistance of the entire international community” because it exceeded the capacity of individual states.

“Such international cooperation is important at every stage of migration: from departing one’s country of origin all the way to reaching one’s destination, as well as facilitating reentry and transit,” Francis said.

“In each of these countries, migrants are vulnerable, feeling alone and isolated. The recognition of this fact is vitally important if we wish to give a concrete and dignified response to this humanitarian challenge,” he said.

The conference, organised by the Vatican and Mexico, was attended by many ambassadors accredited to the Vatican.