By Francesco Guarascio and Philip Blenkinsop
European Union members were on collision course on Monday over proposals to distribute asylum-seekers across the continent, a plan backed by safe-haven Germany but resisted by several ex-Communist states in the east.
A draft agreement for discussion by interior ministers in Brussels would see them agree to a proposal from the EU executive to relocate 120,000 of the most deserving cases around the bloc – but leave the way in which to distribute them for discussion over the next few weeks.
But the French and German ministers said they would push for firm commitments on the distribution, and a timetable, to be included in a final agreement they wanted to see on Monday.
“It is possible to achieve this, but … I don’t know if we’ll manage it today,” Germany’s Thomas de Maiziere told reporters, describing Berlin’s reimposition of border controls on the Austrian frontier on Sunday as a sign it would not accept a “de facto” distribution of migrants into Germany.
France’s Bernard Cazeneuve noted that he had already last month set up new checks close to the Italian border and could follow Germany’s lead in suspending Europe’s Schengen open-frontier rules if necessary. He called for tighter controls on the EU’s external borders and more help for Turkey and other countries which are already accommodating millions of Syrian refugees.
The meeting began with formal enactment of an initial pilot scheme to relocate 40,000 people from Italy and Greece, according to a tweet from Luxembourg, holder of the EU presidency. They are to be distributed on a voluntary basis following opposition to proposed quotas.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, has proposed national quotas for EU states to take people in from over-burdened frontline states.
But that is opposed by some ex-communist eastern states, notably Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary – even though the latter would benefit from the executive’s plan. They argue that quotas would draw more migrants to Europe and disrupt their societies, which have not been used to large-scale immigration.
“The quota system isn’t the solution,” Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak said as he arrived for the meeting.
European Council President Donald Tusk said on Friday he would summon EU leaders for an emergency summit if their ministers could not agree a solution. However, some governments question the value of such a meeting before interior ministers meet again for a regular council on Oct. 8.
Among arguments EU and German officials have used to press eastern leaders, who say their societies cannot take in large numbers of immigrants, have been warnings that failure to fix a common plan on migration could wreck the Schengen open borders system which is especially valued in formerly communist states.
Germany upped the pressure on Sunday by reimposing border controls with Austria after acknowledging it could scarcely cope with thousands of asylum seekers arriving each day.
The draft conclusions for the EU meeting noted the German action, as well as assurances from Berlin that the border checks were a temporary measure responding to a crisis on its frontier.
Ministers should also endorse a range of actions to tighten defences on the common EU borders, better identify and filter those arriving and more swiftly deport those economic migrants found ineligible to remain as refugees from war or persecution.