EU tries again on migration plan
EU countries are making yet another attempt to get past deep-seated divisions over how to deal with the thousands of asylum-seekers arriving every day in Europe.
Interior ministers from the bloc’s 28 members meet in Brussels Monday for talks aimed at approving a set of “emergency” measures on migration, including plans to relocate refugees across the continent. European Council President Donald Tusk underlined the importance of the meeting with an ultimatum, saying Friday that if countries did not show a “concrete sign of solidarity” he would call a special summit of EU heads of state and government to address the issue.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has also pushed for more decisive action from EU member countries, saying in his September 9 State of the Union address that “immediate action” is needed at a “defining moment” for Europe. His top priority: a new proposal for the emergency relocation of 120,000 asylum-seekers.
That plan is proving difficult to sell to some countries and Juncker spent Sunday “working the phones to persuade EU leaders,” according to his top aide. But diplomats say consensus on the migration proposals may be easier to find now than it was earlier this summer, when at a June summit leaders spent a long night arguing over whether all EU countries should be required to accept refugees being relocated from their points of entry in Italy and Greece.
“This time there is a much wider consensus,” said a senior EU diplomat who is taking part in the talks.
At stake on Monday is the EU’s capacity to deliver on an issue making global headlines and leading many to question European solidarity, officials said. But before they can even get to the ambitious new Juncker proposal, the ministers are expected to green-light an earlier plan to relocate 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy.
Even though that figure was approved by EU leaders in June and backed by the European Parliament last week, it has been hard to achieve in reality as countries have not been able to agree on how to share the task. At the last meeting of EU home affairs ministers in July, member states pledged to accept a total of just over 32,000 asylum-seekers — well short of the goal.
As for the new Juncker proposal for 120,000 refugees to be relocated from Italy, Greece and Hungary, diplomats met Sunday evening and Monday morning hoping to finalize a political deal that could then be rubber-stamped at the next October 8 meeting of home affairs ministers.
Draft conclusions for the Council meeting that circulated Sunday night retained the goal of 120,000 refugees but made no mention of the specific countries from which they would be relocated.
Eastern Europe still needs convincing
Yet there are still obstacles. Slovakia and Czech Republic, which were against the previous refugee relocation plan, have signaled their dissatisfaction with the new, much bigger one. The two countries want the scheme to remain voluntary, rather than mandatory.
However Poland, which was also reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers during the summer months, has softened its line and now says it will take in the 9,287 refugees proposed in the second relocation package.
Recent surveys show a growing support in Poland for taking in more migrants, making it easier for its government leaders to agree to a deal with elections approaching — and easier for Tusk, who is Polish, to broker one, diplomatic sources say.
Hungary, however, is maintaining a hard line.
Earlier this month, prime minister Viktor Orbán said the country was ready to consider a relocation plan that resulted in refugees leaving Hungary. But after the proposal was unveiled by Juncker, Budapest backtracked, asking not to take part in the relocation package even though it would result in 54,000 refugees being moved out of Hungary (as well as 50,400 from Greece and 15,600 from Italy).
Orbán is under pressure from his political party group to give ground on migration. According to an EU official, on Friday he met with German MEP Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European Parliament’s center-right EPP group, of which Orbán is a member.
On Friday too the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia met their counterparts from Germany and Luxembourg in Prague to discuss the new measures. At the end of the meeting the four countries reaffirmed their opposition to a mandatory quotas for accepting refugees.
Other EU countries have still need convincing on the mandatory aspect of the new proposal. Finland’s interior ministry said in a statement Friday that Helsinki will take part in the relocation plan but was clear that it would “participate in burden sharing on a voluntary basis.”
Different method, different outcome
EU member states agreed in June on relocating 40,000 asylum-seekers only after reaching a difficult compromise: Make the goal mandatory but let countries decide on a voluntary basis how many refugees to take in.
“The fact that we have not reached the 40,000 goal proves that that system has failed,” said an EU official.
For the new proposal, diplomats are trying are trying a different approach: Agree that the 120,000 figure is mandatory for everyone, and set up a binding system for allocating the refugees to different countries.
In this way, once the criteria and the figure are agreed, each member state will be in a position to say it made the decision to take in a certain number of refugees according to rules agreed by member states rather than imposed on it by the Commission, officials explained.
Carrot and stick
EU diplomats are hoping to convince eastern European countries to agree to the plan with a few policy tweaks.
First, the new scheme proposed by the Commission adds Hungary to the list of countries from which aslyum-seekers will be relocated — a clear concession to Orbán, though it isn’t clear he’s buying it.
Sec0ndly, the criteria used to decide how many refugees will be allocated to each member state have been slightly changed since the first plan. The complicated distribution key involves each country’s population (40 percent weighting), its total GDP (40 percent), its average number of asylum applications per one million inhabitants over the period 2010-2014 (10 percent) and its unemployment rate (10 percent).
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The new plan introduces a cap that lightens the burden on smaller countries and makes it heavier on bigger states. For example: In the previous relocation, the distribution key for the Czech Republic was 3.32 percent of the total, while the new one is much lower at 2.48 percent. For Germany it was 21.91 percent; in the new scheme it would be 26.2 percent.
And finally, a stick to go with those carrots. The Commission is proposing a “temporary solidarity clause” that would allow a country with a justified reason to opt out of the relocation scheme for 12 months, but only after paying not to play. The plan would require a payment to the EU budget of 0.002 percent of the country’s GDP.
But Germany and France are reluctant to agree to that provision. German diplomats said there were “ethical problems” with it, since it could be used simply to avoid sharing the burden.