Tuesday

18th Feb 2020

EU asylum agreement prompts deep divisions

  • Juncker (l) said he 'would have wanted a mandatory system but if the result is the same, why start a war.' (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Plans agreed by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels to distribute asylum seekers without binding quotas exposed EU institutional and national divides.

Discussions had kicked off Thursday (25 June) evening but quickly ran into the early morning hours on Friday with one EU source describing the debate as “emotional”.

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“We've had a very engaged debate, which reflects the topic,” said Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

The dispute is rooted in a plan proposed by the European commission in May to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states over a two-year period.

Billed as an emergency response to the some 100,000 migrants coming to the EU since the start of the year, the commission’s plan required each member state to take in a pre-defined number of asylum seekers.

But Poland and France along with around a dozen others were against a system imposed by Brussels, opting instead for an open-ended approach on how to distribute the 40,000.

Friday’s decision to keep the 40,000 but scrap the commission’s binding quota system did not come as a surprise. Draft summit conclusions circulating throughout the week have carefully avoided the word ‘mandatory’.

They also agreed to resettle 20,000 refugees.

But the drawn out talks suggests diverging views between the leadership of the European commission and the European Council on the procedure.

A visibly tired EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who put on a brave face after the talks, told reporters he “would have wanted that everyone accept a mandatory system but if the result is the same, why start a war.”

Italy’s president Mateo Renzi slammed his counterparts for not backing the commission’s scheme.

“If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it," Renzi reportedly told his dissenting counterparts.

EP president Martin Schulz had told reporters earlier on Thursday that “voluntary or intergovernmental schemes have been tried in the past and have failed.”

“If this is to work, it must be mandatory.”

The European commission, for its part, in the lead up to the summit has made similar statements.

'Irregular migrants must be returned'

However language on preventing migrants coming to the EU in the first place or returning those not eligible for asylum was much clearer.

“Migrants with no legal rights to enter the EU must be returned,” said EU council president Donald Tusk.

“Today we have agreed to accelerate readmission agreements with third countries,” he said.

Leaders agreed to quarantine arriving migrants in “frontline states” like Italy, Greece and Malta at “structured border zones and facilities” for identification and fingerprinting.

The aim is to return as many irregular migrants as possible but outstanding issues on getting African countries to accept them remain. A summit in Malta later this year is due to deal with the issue.

“We need time to organise some form of package, measures that will help convince countries of origin that they can actually subscribe to those commitments, to readmit their nationals,” said a senior EU official.

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, on Thursday said migrant arrivals are likely to increase over the coming months.

Some 153,000 have been detected trying to enter since the start of the year, a 149-percent increase compared to the same period last year.

The biggest increase came from the Western Balkan route that leads to Hungary.

Around 50,000 were detected between January and May, representing an 880-percent increase from last year.

Hungarian authorities had earlier in the week temporarily suspended asylum transfers from other member states.

“Since the beginning of the year, a third of asylum seekers have been registered in Hungary, that is more than in Italy,” said Tusk.

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