EU countries try to thrash out refugee burden-sharing

BRUSSELS (AFP): EU interior ministers meeting Thursday will seek agreement on a long-stalled revision of the bloc’s asylum and migration rules that is aimed at making burden-sharing fairer.

But diplomats cautioned the odds of a deal were still “50-50”, with increasing numbers of European Union members adopting hardline policies on the issue.

The proposal on the table at the meeting in Luxembourg calls for compulsory solidarity among EU countries, but with an option of showing that in one of two ways.

Its priority is for EU countries to share the hosting of asylum-seekers, taking in many that arrive in nations on the bloc’s outer rim, mainly Greece and Italy.

Those refusing would instead be required to pay a sum — not yet revealed, but which various diplomats put at between 10,000 ($11,000) and 30,000 euros per asylum-seeker — to the countries doing the hosting.

A preliminary agreement of the EU’s 27 countries on that basis would open the way to negotiations with the European Parliament for legislation that could be adopted before European elections in June next year.

The difficult reform has jumped up the bloc’s agenda as the number of asylum-seekers rises, after a pause caused by travel restrictions during the Covid pandemic.

– ‘Well-balanced’ compromise –

The European Commission put forward its suggestion for a new migration and asylum pact in 2020 based on a quota system for taking in asylum-seekers.

But that plan quickly hit the buffers after refusals from Hungary, Poland and other countries that objected to any requirement to take in migrants.

Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of this month, presented two compromise texts: one that called for the hosting-or-cash approach by all member states, and the other on asylum procedures on the EU’s external borders.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson on Tuesday said “there is a big chance that we can have a very important breakthrough” in the Luxembourg meeting.

“What is on the table right now in the negotiations is well-balanced,” she said.

The lead EU lawmaker on the issue, French MEP Fabienne Keller, called on member states to move forward.

“We can’t allow the Council (representing EU countries) to fail at finding a compromise on the rules. If they don’t respect the steps agreed upon, all the migration and asylum pact will be threatened,” she said.

An EU diplomat involved in the issue said he hoped the compromise texts would find agreement.

“But I’m not sure — it’s 50-50,” he said.  “It’s a politically very delicate issue. But what I sense is a strong willingness to try.”

Oxfam, a charity that aids refugees, was critical of the direction the talks were heading as EU countries take harsher steps to prevent the arrival of asylum-seekers.

“These proposals will not fix the chronic deficiencies in the EU asylum system. Instead, they signal the EU’s desire to barricade Europe from asylum-seekers,” said Oxfam migration expert Stephanie Pope.

She added that the proposal on EU border management was “a mere carbon copy of the broken model seen on the Greek islands,” where she said migrants were cooped up in “prison-like centres”.