The question of how to stem the numbers of migrants and refugees into Europe came back to the fore last week after Italy closed its ports to a migrant rescue ship.
Didier Leschi, head of OFFI, said: “Europe is at a crossroads.”
He added the EU is more divided than ever over the migrant crisis and how to share the refugee burden.
There is a “deep divide” between the “two Europes” on the question, Mr Leschi said, referring to the EU’s founding members and the recently joined, more immigration-averse eastern EU states.
Mr Leschi said: “Europe’s newest members, Eastern countries, do not have the same tradition of accepting migrants as the bloc’s founding members. The divide is historic.”
The immigration chief called for more dialogue between Northern and Southern EU states.
Mr Leschi added Italy’s new populist government was calling into question European unity by ignoring Europe’s long-standing tradition of welcoming refugees.
Italy is one of the bloc’s six founding members.
Rome’s controversial rejection of a rescue ship with some 630 migrants on board last week “poses a problem of solidarity” between member states, Mr Leschi warned.
The question of how to curb illegal immigration and of how many migrants the bloc can realistically absorb came back into the spotlight last week after Italy closed its doors to the drifting rescue boat, which was eventually accepted by Spain.
Italy says it prefers the EU’s border agency Frontex to work in Africa to prevent people from coming to Europe rather than have to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue those stranded at sea.
An idea echoed by Mr Leschi, who also urged the EU to work hand in glove with the countries of departure.
He said: “Some people are genuinely in need of protection, but there are also some who are not fleeing political repression. We must ensure that economic migrants are less tempted to leave their homes by holding the countries of departure more accountable.”
The EU, which has struggled to agree on a common asylum policy, is bitterly divided over migration and has instead tried to strengthen its borders and deter new arrivals.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris and Berlin had agreed that EU states should have the right to turn away at their borders all migrants who registered in another member country, usually their first port of call.
Mr Macron also called for a “more efficient system of solidarity and responsibility” regarding the registration and redistribution of asylum seekers, and pledged alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel to better protect the bloc’s external borders by boosting the Frontex agency.