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26th Jan 2020

Bulgaria set to delay EU talks on refugee quotas

  • 'We agreed to first look at the text article by article,' said Valentin Radev, Bulgaria's interior minister (Photo: European Union)

The EU presidency under Bulgaria appears likely to wait until the very end of negotiations before broaching the controversial refugee quota issue in a key EU asylum reform bill.

The six-month presidency is mandated to find a political consensus by the end of June on the 'Dublin' regulation, which determines who is responsible for processing asylum claims.

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A consensus appears to be emerging following German demands to first sort out the easier points under the reform before tackling the most difficult one.

Valentin Radev, Bulgaria's interior minister, on Thursday (27 January) appeared willing to offload the issue until the very end following suggestions first floated by his German counterpart Thomas de Maiziere.

"My brief answer is yes. We have almost agreed to this," Radev told reporters when asked if he would take on board de Maiziere's proposal.

He said the two had agreed to first look at the bill "article by article".

The European Parliament has already reached its position on the bill and is waiting for member states to do the same before talks can start between the institutions.

De Maiziere, a close ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, maintains that a quota system needs to remain part of the Dublin reform, but earlier noted that it will not be easy to find a solution and suggested to first tackle less tricky issues.

Germany has also been struggling to form a coalition government under Merkel's weakened chancellery over fears it could spark a new election.

On Friday, she is meeting to thrash out a coalition programme with Bavarian CSU party leader Horst Seehofer and SPD leader Martin Schulz.

Despite efforts by previous EU presidencies, member states have been unable to find agreement on imposing mandatory asylum-seeker quotas.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, known as the Visegrad four, are leading the opposition pack against any future plans to parcel out asylum seekers on a mandatory basis.

The divides came into sharp relief at a EU summit last December when the Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, described the proposed quota system as "highly divisive" and "ineffective".

A visibly angered Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration, at the time called Tusk "anti-European" given his remarks on the proposal.

On Thursday, he appeared more measured in his comments, noting that no effort "should be spared in order for the European Council to reach an overall position on the reform of the asylum system during the Bulgarian presidency."

Austria, whose government is composed of far-right anti-immigrant ministers, will be next line to take the EU helm.

Greek figures showed that 1,061 people arrived on Greek islands from Turkey so far in January and that Turkey intercepted and turned back 1,283 other would-be asylum claimants.

The numbers compared to 7,000 a month at the height of the migration crisis in 2015 and were especially low - just 264 people - in the past two weeks due to bad weather.

Arrivals were up in Italy, where 2,749 people came from Libya, compared to 2,393 in January last year.

The 15 percent jump came amid increasing lawlessness in Libya, which had slashed figures by more than a third in 2017 compared to 2016 with the help of the Italian navy.

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EU asylum debate reopens old wounds

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At least 17 Libyans were returned to their war-torn country after attempting to flee on boats towards Europe. Their fates, along with many others, remain unknown as the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard sweeps up people en masse.

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