BRUSSELS – European Union countries have made a breakthrough in migration talks, sealing agreement on a plan to share out responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization, the root of one of the bloc’s longest-running political crises, officials said late Thursday.
After a long day of negotiations in Luxembourg, EU interior ministers endorsed a deal balancing the obligation for countries where most migrants arrive to process and lodge them against the requirement for other members to provide support, whether financial or by hosting refugees.
The pact will form the 27 EU countries’ negotiating stance in talks with the European Parliament, which has a different view of solidarity – one that requires countries to draw up detailed “annual migrant support plans” to help out frontline member states and the mandatory relocation of refugees.
Indeed, given the divergent positions, it’s possible the agreement could unravel during those negotiations.
Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and brokered the agreement, described the deal as “a historic step and a great success,” but she expressed surprise that the long-held divisions had been overcome.
“To be honest, I didn’t really believe I would be sitting here saying this, but here we are,” she told reporters. She said the contents of the deal form “the main pillars of the reform of the EU asylum system and are key to a good balance between responsibility and solidarity.”
Europe’s asylum system collapsed eight years ago after well over a million people entered — most of them fleeing conflict in Syria — and overwhelmed reception capacities in Greece and Italy, in the process sparking one of the EU’s biggest political crises.
The 27 EU nations have bickered ever since over which countries should take responsibility for people arriving without authorization, and whether other members should be obliged to help them cope.
Not all countries endorsed the plan on Thursday but only a “qualified majority” of support was required – that is roughly two thirds of the member countries accounting for about two thirds of the total EU population of some 450 million people.
The Czech Republic asked to be left out of the migrant “solidarity clause” due to the number of refugees it is already hosting from Ukraine. Malta abstained, but the objections of Italy and Greece – those hardest hit in the past – were overcome in a late round of talks.
Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that she was optimistic about the negotiations with parliament, despite the assembly's insistence on mandatory relocation.
“We still have some steps to go until we have totally finalized this, but I think it is clear that we have made huge progress when it comes to building trust,” she told reporters.
Stenergard said that Sweden's proposal for a system under which countries who do not want to take migrants in could pay money instead was endorsed. It would amount to 20,000 euros ($21,400) per migrant.
EU lawmakers have warned that it's the last chance to solve the conundrum before EU-wide elections in a year, when migration is likely once again to be a hot-button issue, and pressure will mount as next June's polls draw near.
“If we miss this chance to make it right, I don’t think we will have another,” Spanish Socialist lawmaker Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a leader on migration policy, said in April. “The kind of a message would be: ‘Hey, listen, it’s not going to happen. Not this time. Ever.’
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