BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union interior ministers on Thursday made a fresh attempt to overcome one of the bloc´s most intractable political problems as they weighed new measures for sharing out responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization.
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.
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Arriving for the meeting in Luxembourg, the EU´s top migration official, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said it was an “extremely important day” to resolve what has “been a marathon” issue for Europe.
“Of this marathon, we have maybe 100 meters left. So, we are so close to actually find an agreement today,” Johansson said. “I expect the member states to be able to do the final extra meters to reach the agreement.”
“If we are not united, we are all losers,” she said.
Under the existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive must interview and screen them and process the applications of those who might want to apply for asylum. But Greece, Italy and Malta maintain that the burden of managing the numbers of people coming in is too onerous.
Later attempts to impose quota systems on countries to share out the migrants were challenged in court and finally abandoned. EU countries now seem to agree that the assistance they provide must be mandatory but can take the form of financial and other help rather than migration sharing schemes.
The EU´s presidency, currently held by Sweden, has proposed a system under which countries who do not want to take migrants in could pay money instead. Figures of around 20,000 euros ($21,400) per migrant have circulated in the runup to the meeting. It remains unclear if the idea will be accepted.
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Diplomats said ahead of the meeting that an agreement is only likely if big member countries France, Germany and Italy back the plan. A deal requires the support of a “qualified majority” – roughly two thirds of the 27 members but crucially also making up about two thirds of the EU population.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told reporters that he had come with compromise proposals and that plenty of work remains to be done on what is a “very difficult” issue.
“What we want to do is completely change the situation on migration,” Darmanin said.
His Spanish counterpart, Fernando Grande-Marlaska – whose country has struggled to deal with an influx of people trying to enter from North Africa through Spanish islands in the Atlantic – warned that “if we don´t reach that agreement, I think that all of us will be losers.”
Even if a political agreement is reached Thursday, the member countries must still negotiate a full deal with the European Parliament, which has a different view of solidarity – one that requires countries to draw up detailed “annual migrant support plans” in case of emergency.
Lawmakers have warned that this is a 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.
Should the EU fail, the project might have to be abandoned or completely overhauled as it´s taken up by the next European Commission – the bloc´s executive branch – and the new members of parliament after next June´s polls.
“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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