In what was billed as a rare "informal meeting" of leaders under the auspices of the European Commission, the new Italian prime minister, Guiseppe Conte, representing his new anti-immigration populist government, presented a plan that would upend the regulations now governing migrants and asylum-seekers. It means that whatever is agreed upon Sunday, it would still face a full test when the full two-day European Union summit starts Thursday. Under the Dublin rules, asylum-seekers must be processed in the country in which they first arrive - often Italy, Greece or Spain.
"We need to improve the internal functioning [of migration] to have an approach that is above all pragmatic, efficient, which fights against illegal migration but doesn't go against our principles", Macron said, describing what he saw as a consensus achieved during the meeting.
Sanchez said it was "important we have a common answer to a common challenge".
Chancellor for almost 13 years, Merkel needs to deliver some sort of a deal at the 28-29 June EU meeting to keep her Bavarian conservative allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), on board.
"There will be bilateral and trilateral agreements, how can we help each other, not always wait for all 28 members", she said.
Tensions have risen, too, among Western countries themselves about migration policies.
The number of people arriving in Europe has dropped significantly this year - the UN's refugee agency forecasts around 80,000 people will enter by sea in 2018 if current trends continue - but the EU's political turmoil over the topic has soared.
"France's generosity can not be called into question by anybody and it is not for Mr. Salvini, who closes his ports (to migrants).to teach France a lesson", French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau responded.
"The situation is risky", a diplomat said. "When someone has the right to protection and asylum, we should grant it".
Analyst de Somer believes progress in forging a European migration plan might be made incrementally, for example threats of ending the open-border Schengen system, which is popular among Europeans, to get eastern European countries to accept more migrants.
Despite the different perspectives, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, "progress is possible on Thursday".
European Union cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main transit countries, have sharply cut, at least for now, the flow of migrants to Europe since 2015.
The EU's top migration official on Monday urged European nations to work together to solve the migration crisis, ahead of a key summit in Brussels.
The leaders are also to discuss proposals for reception centers outside the bloc to separate genuine war refugees from economic migrants, who can be sent home.
There was also some support for screening African migrants heading to Europe in North Africa and the Balkans, an idea that has sparked some concern about migrant rights, particularly after a 2016 European Union migrant deal with Turkey.
In answer to comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said migration flows towards Europe had reduced compared with a few years ago, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said Macron's words showed he was out of touch.
Like everything to do with migrants in Europe lately, even this meeting is proving controversial.
Italy and Austria have joined the four Visegrad countries of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which boycotted the mini-summit, in attacking Brussels' handling of the crisis.
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