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17th Apr 2021

EU leaders stuck on asylum reform

  • EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (l), EU Council chief Donald Tusk (m) and Austrian chancellor Sebastien Kurz coordinate at the start of Friday's EU meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU leaders pushed back European asylum reform to their ministers on Friday (14 December), without deciding on key obstacles to any progress.

It means it is unlikely that a common asylum policy reform can be agreed before the EU elections next May.

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The migration debate at the EU summit, overshadowed by Brexit, brought home again the deep divisions between hardline anti-immigration member states and those, along with the European Commission, who had wanted to speed up agreements on the issue before Europeans go to the ballot.

The commission was hoping that EU leaders could be persuaded to push through five of the seven legislative files that make up the common asylum policy, which countries had largely agreed on earlier.

But some member states - such as Greece, Hungary, Sweden, Italy - opposed the so-called "decoupling" of those files, which does not enjoy broad support among member states, nor it has the backing of the European Parliament.

The remaining part of the asylum reform is mostly held up by disagreement over the distribution of asylum seekers among member states.

Most central and eastern European countries do not want to take migrants, while other countries, such as Sweden or Italy insist on fair burden sharing.

"We expect an expression of solidarity - the extent of this has not been finalised. I can't give a forecast on progress," German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting.

The commission had hoped that some results on migration and asylum could give a boost to pro-European forces in the EU campaign, as asylum reforms could be seen as something the EU has delivered on after the 2015 migration crisis.

Some countries, such as Hungary, however, are not interested in pro-EU forces gaining strength ahead of the vote next May.

Other member states fear that if the files are separated, distribution of migrations will never be discussed again, and the remaining files will get stuck indefinitely.

"We're back to where we started," said one source after the meeting of EU leaders, who agreed to pass the ball back to ministers to decide on what should be done with the asylum reform.

"There were no surprises on positions of EU countries during the debate," said another source on the sidelines of the talks.

Several EU leaders warned that a lack of progress on the EU's asylum reform could risk free movement in the bloc, as many member states have already reinstalled border checks.

Belgium's Charles Michel, France's Emmanuel Macron, and commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, all warned that the passport-free Schengen zone is at stake.

"They made it known that the political risk is clear, if we don't agree on these things, Schengen is at risk," a source said on the discussions.

For central and eastern European member states, some of which are stalling progress, keeping the borders open was essential.

EU leaders also discussed reinforcing the EU's external border guard, but the creation of an additional 10,000 guards by 2020 has not been backed by EU leaders.

Juncker told reporters after the meeting that some of the leaders were hypocrites.

"The elephant in the room is hypocrisy: all leaders say they want better external border protection. The commission has put proposals on the table. So I am surprised by the resistance of some member states," Juncker said.

Hungary, Italy, and other member states opposed boosting the number of EU guards, arguing it could infringe upon their sovereignty.

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