BRUSSELS - European Union states are wrestling over how to reform their broken migration and asylum system, pushing for a deal at a leaders' summit in June over the highly-politicized issue that has defied resolution for nearly three years.
The dispute has divided the bloc between southerners on the Mediterranean shore where most refugees and migrants land from the Middle East and Africa against ex-communist states that refuse to host part of the arrivals.
Wealthy destination countries such as Germany are also pushing for a deal under which no one could bail out completely from hosting those coming.
The latest proposal would let capitals avoid taking in a quarter of their "fair share" of asylum-seekers who make it to Europe. Instead they could bring in a handpicked person from across the sea or offer 30,000 euros to an EU host for each individual they refuse.
But Poland and Hungary staunchly oppose any obligatory immigration quotas and a diplomat involved in the talks for one of the two said the idea was "absolutely not" acceptable.
A joint paper by five Mediterranean states including Italy also rejected it - but for the exact opposite reason. It said such option would not have enough "immediate positive impact" in easing the burden on the main countries of entry.
The dissonance shows that another half year that has passed since the EU leaders last failed to break the deadlock saw little real progress on the most contested parts of the reform.
National envoys will discuss it in Brussels in mid-May, hand on to interior ministers meeting early next month and then to the leaders’ summit on June 28-29.
The bitter discussion started in the summer of 2015 as southern arrivals in the EU spiked, overwhelming EU governments and feeding support for anti-immigration parties. The wound has since festered, undermining trust between EU states.
A senior EU diplomat said on Monday the "very delicate and difficult negotiations" could still bear fruit.
Another diplomat from an EU country where refugees and migrants often want to go said the latest draft was a good basis for compromise since "everybody is almost equally unhappy with it", but added Warsaw and Budapest were "still only against.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday the main task of his new government was to preserve Hungary's security and Christian culture, rhetoric he has used in denying access to people from the mainly-Muslim Middle East and North Africa.
Not ready for another crisis
Those pushing for a deal are also looking at outvoting the two staunch critics if they could have on board their eastern peers Slovakia and the Czech Republic, seen as less ideological on the matter, said a different diplomat from a rich EU state.
The political limbo in Italy is also a problem since a strong government in Rome is needed to sign off on any deal.
"You win or lose elections on that," said another diplomat, referring to former Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi who was voted out partly because voters felt Rome was not controlling migration enough, and Orban who claimed victory in Hungary on a tough anti-immigration platform.
Many in the EU warn the bloc is not ready for another mass influx of people. While overall arrival numbers have since dropped sharply, they point to data from Germany where many still arrive without proper registration on entering the EU, most notably through the overburdened Greek islands.
Germany, France and several other states introduced emergency border checks in what is normally Europe's zone of free travel to control the situation better. They are now in place until October and many see them extended beyond that.
Highlighting how the matter is crucial to the bloc, the executive European Commission earmarked 35 billion euros ($41.7 bln) for protecting the EU's external borders and managing migration in 2021-27, a nearly-threefold increase from the previous joint budget. But a deal still seems elusive.
"I don't see consensus emerging," said one of the diplomats.