By Alastair Macdonald and Francesco Guarascio
EU ministers met on Tuesday to end a furious row over sharing out asylum-seekers that has held up plans to stem the flow of migrants by tightening border controls and ramping up aid for Syrian refugees in the Middle East.
As the UN refugee agency called for more European action, the meeting’s chairman said he believed a compromise on a scheme to relocate 120,000 people from overstretched frontier states would be agreed before EU leaders meet on Wednesday to chart a broader, international strategy to stabilise the situation.
Among plans is a sharp increase in aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey and elsewhere, to discourage them from heading for Europe.
Despite renewed criticism of the scheme from east European leaders who reject German-led demands for all states to take a quota and argue that immigrants will disrupt their societies, the chairman of the interior ministers’ meeting, Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn, voiced confidence in reaching a compromise.
“We have put forward a text which should be able to reach a consensus,” he said on arrival at the talks in Brussels.
EU officials and diplomats voice mounting frustration that the argument over housing a number of people equivalent only to those arriving in 20 days at current rates is a distraction from efforts to forge a broader common front to control the crisis.
That could mean simply over-ruling the objections of the east European minority by means of a vote on Tuesday evening. But diplomats are anxious to avoid an outcome that could add to a rancorous atmosphere before EU leaders gather the next day to deal with crisis that risks gravely damaging the Union.
As with a scheme finalised earlier this month to relocate 40,000 people from Italy and Greece, one solution could be to make taking in set numbers of asylum seekers voluntary – though Germany, the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, is insisting that others should be obliged to help.
Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, who has irritated fellow EU leaders by fencing off borders to hold back migrants, has complicated efforts to agree on the scheme to redistribute 120,000 by saying Budapest would not accept it –even though it would benefit by being able to send 54,000 people elsewhere.
Orban says the scheme fuels arrivals and fails to address his complaint that most people reach Hungary via Greece.
Italy and Greece are pushing hard for relocation to relieve them of the cost of handling the bulk of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe, under a rule that migrants be accommodated in the first EU state they enter. In fact, Greece in particular has allowed hundreds of thousands to pass unchecked, fuelling chaotic crowds trying to reach Germany across the Balkan peninsula.
France and Germany are insisting that any sharing out of asylum-seekers go hand in hand with Italy and Greece accepting EU-backed ‘hot spots’, where seconded teams of border guards will register and fingerprint people arriving and swiftly filter out those not qualifying as refugees who should be sent home.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere was cautious on the prospects for a deal but stressed that, in any case, it was vital to push ahead with plans to better control Mediterranean frontiers and direct aid to refugees before they try to travel.
“If there is such an agreement it is just one building block in … solving the migration issue as a whole,” he said.
“What we really need is to limit the stream of migrants to Europe, to send back them from Europe, to set up hot spots and to spend money so that more people do not come,” he added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose critics say she fuelled the crisis by suggesting last month that Syrians were welcome in Germany, also stressed the need to do more in the Middle East.
“We must do everything to end the causes of the exodus from the refugee camps,” she told a news conference in Berlin.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “We must be clear that we must control the flows.” He added that Europe’s approach must be “humanity, responsibility and firmness”.
The UN refugee agency called on Europe on Tuesday to set up facilities to house tens of thousands of people. The EU has plans to accommodate people who have arrived, though officials are concerned that many may try to avoid state institutions.
EU officials hope the emergency summit will deliver concrete pledges of financial and other support for Turkey, Jordan and other nations housing some four million Syrian refugees, as well as for the 11 million Syrians now homeless in their own country.
“We feel that after the past few weeks people are much more ready to support refugees while they are still outside Europe, so we want to jump on that,” one senior EU official said.
The Commission said last week it was ready to come up with about 1 billion euros for Turkey, more than five times what the EU has already deployed for the two million refugees there.
A senior official told Reuters that about two-thirds of that sum would come from existing funds pencilled in for Turkey and the rest by diverting other money in the EU’s common budget. But a key element would be raising a matching sum from EU states.
Funds would be used to help the most affected communities, boost health services and support teaching in Arabic. In return, Turkey must do more to improve the conditions for refugees, to fight smugglers and stop more people reaching Greece.
“Turkey has to deliver,” the official said. “Europe wants to take its share of refugees and will do, but Syrians should stay as close as possible to their homes.”
Turkey wants money but also more recognition of its status after many years in which it has been held in a limbo of possible accession to the EU. Europe is considering holding a ‘mini-summit’ with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 5.