FRANKFURT - The European Union unveiled Wednesday a long-delayed proposal to overhaul the bloc’s migration and asylum policy and to establish a compulsory system across the 27-member bloc to handle migration.
After years of division between member states over how to respond to migrant influxes, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen called the proposal a “European solution to restore citizens' confidence.”
Under the German-backed plan all 27 EU countries would be required to take part with member states either agreeing to admit asylum-seekers or to take charge of deporting migrants and refugees whose asylum applications are denied.
The overall aim is to relieve pressure on the bloc’s Mediterranean coastal countries, mainly Italy and Greece, and assist in other ways. But approval of the plan by the EU's 27 heads of state and government is far from assured, say analysts, and opposition to the proposal is already building.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cast doubt on the idea of distributing asylum seekers across Europe. “It won't work like this,” he told the AFP news agency.
Numerous attempts to overhaul EU migration policy in the past have failed, largely because of resistance from a handful of member states mainly in central Europe to any compulsory distribution of asylum-seekers. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters this week that she’s ready for tough resistance from Hungary, Poland and several rich northern European nations, but hopes to overcome opposition by providing the EU's 27 countries with “flexible options” for how to participate.
“We should focus on how we can manage migration in an orderly way and I think that's what European citizens ask from us,” she told Euronews hours before the details of the proposal were publicly disclosed. “Migrants are like you and I, they are men and women, boys and girls, they have different opinions, they have different experiences and they are human beings and they have to be treated like that,” she added.
Unveiling the plan, Ursula von der Leyen said it would “rebuild trust between member states” and that it strikes the “right balance between solidarity and responsibility.” The new proposal would also replace the EU’s so-called Dublin rule, which required asylum claims to be handled in the EU country where applicants first arrived.
The new proposal would see asylum-seekers being assigned by EU officials to specific countries based on family links, history of education or work, or having had a visa issued in the past by a member state. EU officials say they hope the plan will bring to an end the feud between member states over migration that first emerged in 2015, when the continent saw a massive migrant influx.
But there are few signs that the pact will end the bitterness over migration or stop it from acting as a corrosive political issue. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban made clear this week that he has no intention of compromising and accepting relocated asylum-seekers. He doubled down on his disapproval in a combative essay for Magyar Nemzet, a right-wing Hungarian newspaper, in which he said there’s an impasse between conservative central and eastern Europe and the liberal western European states, one he can’t see can be overcome.
“Loopy liberals see no reason to fear even a flood of immigration,” he wrote. He added: “Central European countries have chosen a different future, free of immigration and migration.”
Hungarian officials say they doubt Budapest will agree to get involved in deporting denied asylum-seekers, saying that taking in migrants due to be deported would just be migration by stealth. They point out that the majority of failed asylum-seekers never get sent home because of procedural problems, lack of documentation or because their homes countries refuse to receive them or assist.
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have resisted EU policies on migrant settlement quotas since the height of the migration and asylum crisis in 2015, when nearly two million migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, arrived on Europe’s shores. Several north European states have also been reluctant.
The new proposal is being pushed most strongly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has been given added urgency following the blaze earlier this month at the overcrowded Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. German officials say 10 European countries have agreed to take in 400 unaccompanied minors who fled the fire at Moria.
The numbers of asylum-seekers arriving on Europe's shores are much lower than in previous years. So far this year around 55,000 have arrived seeking sanctuary from conflict or a better life. The reason for the lower numbers lies largely with a 2016 agreement between Turkey and the EU.
Under the 2016 deal Turkey agreed to block asylum-seekers from traveling overland or by boat to Europe, in return for substantial cash payments. But with tensions running high between Turkey and EU countries it is unclear whether the deal will hold in the future.