Pope and Emmanuel Macron discuss migration during Vatican meeting

Talks between the two lasted beyond their allotted time as the pair covered a wide range of topics

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) exchanges gifts with Pope Francis at the end of a private audience at the Vatican on June 26, 2018.    / AFP / POOL / Alessandra Tarantino
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Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron held lengthy private talks at the Vatican on Tuesday to discuss immigration and to reflect on Europe’s prospects amid growing challenges to the continent’s unity.

Tensions in the European Union over how to share the responsibilities of mass migration are testing the bloc’s staying power. Looming over a key EU meeting later this week are clashing views among members on how to handle the crisis caused by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The pair spoke for 57 minutes in the Pope’s library in the Apostolic Palace. Originally, the Pope’s schedule called for 45 minutes with the French leader.

After they emerged from their closed-door talks, Mr Macron put a hand on the Pope's shoulder, then kissed him on both cheeks. The Pope reciprocated the warmth, gripping the French leader's arm, then vigorously shaking his hands and smiling broadly as he said goodbye. He also took the hand of Mr Macron's wife, Brigitte.

The Vatican described the talks as “cordial”, saying they highlighted “the good existing bilateral relations”.

It said the two discussed global issues, including migration, the environment and conflict prevention and resolution, especially disarmament.

“The conversation also permitted an exchange of views on various situations of conflict, particularly in the Middle East and in Africa. Finally, there was a joint reflection on the prospects of the European project.”

For his part, Mr Macron described his meeting with the Pope as "extremely rich and intense". He told the Pope the "progressive" way to handle the migrant crisis was through "a true policy of development for Africa", the president recounted at a news conference.

Last week, the Pope urged nations to welcome all the refugees they could properly integrate into society. The Pope said governments should also work to improve the lives of people in Africa rather than continue viewing the continent as ripe for exploitation.

Coming at a time of testy French-Italian relations, Mr Macron's visit was officially strictly Vatican-related, with no meetings scheduled with Italian government leaders. But Italy's new premier, Giuseppe Conte, did meet in Paris with Mr Macron earlier this month for talks that risked being scuttled after France scathingly criticised Italy for not allowing a private rescue boat with more than 600 migrants aboard to dock in Italian ports.

Italy’s new leaders had retorted that France sends back migrants who illegally enter France from Italy and shouldn’t be giving Rome any lectures.

Spain eventually gave the ship safe harbour.

Italy has allowed some 600,000 migrants, rescued at sea in the last few years from smugglers’ boats setting out from Libya, to step onto its soil. But the new right-wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, says Italy can no longer be “the refugee camp” for Europe.

Earlier, the Mr Macron met with officials from Rome-based Catholic charity the Sant'Egidio Community. The group has organised humanitarian flights of Syrian refugees to Italy so that those fleeing war will have an alternative to risky journeys across the Mediterranean to reach safety in Europe and to life in crowded refugee camps in the Middle East.

Community president Marco Impagliazzo said they “spoke above all of a European solution to this migration crisis that is not only a crisis of the flow of migrants but also a problem of what to do with the people when they arrive in Europe, what will they do, how will they be inserted into society”.