The European Union has hammered out a deal to relocate 120,000 refugees across member states.
In an emergency meeting on Tuesday night in Brussels, the E.U. interior ministers agreed to the one-off, emergency measure.
The hard-won settlement avoided controversial terms such as “quota” or “mandatory” in a bid to ease concerns among some Eastern European countries that the plan threatens their sovereignty.
However, the deal was not unanimous, with four Eastern European countries voting against the plan.
With the whole continent struggling to cope with an unprecedented flow of refugees arriving overland via the Western Balkans and on the shores of Italy and Greece, pressure is mounting on E.U. leaders to thrash out a coordinated European response.
The meeting of interior ministers laid the groundwork for today’s gathering of the heads of state and government.
Despite the high stakes, the 28 ministers were unable to reach the consensus vote usual for key E.U. decisions, passing it instead with a majority vote. Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia voted against the plan to reallocate 120,000 refugees across the majority of the E.U. member states over the next two years. Poland, which had also voiced objections, in the end opted to side with the majority.
“We would have preferred a consensus but we could not reach that, and it is not for want of trying,” Luxembourg Interior Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, told a news conference on Tuesday.
Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, said the quota system had “nonsensically” caused a deep rift over a highly sensitive issue. “As long as I am prime minister,” Slovakia would not implement a quota, he added.
Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec tweeted: “We will soon realize that the emperor has no clothes. Common sense lost today.”
Under the agreement, these 120,000 refugees, who arrived in Greece and Italy, will be distributed among 25 E.U. countries on the basis of figures previously calculated by the European Commission.
Germany, which has accepted more of the new arrivals than any other E.U. state, greeted the plan with caution. “It’s a first step, further measures will follow,” said German interior minister Thomas de Maizière after the meeting.
The lack of consensus will overshadow Wednesday’s summit of E.U. leaders, which is set to focus on the “external dimension” of the crisis. Leaders are said to largely agree on the need to bolster security at the E.U.’s external borders and to increase aid to refugee transit countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
“We want the summit to send a clear signal to other countries that Europeans are united,” one diplomat told Handelsblatt. However solving the refugee problem by addressing its causes will be much more of a long-term project, he added.
“We want the summit to send a clear signal to other countries that Europeans are united.”
But gaining consensus on what to do about the newcomers once they arrive in Europe is proving complicated. Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark have already secured opt-outs. Other member states will not be allowed to opt out, but only be given the option to delay accepting their refugee contingent for up to one year.
Ministers also agreed to drop financial penalties previously raised as a possible way of forcing states to accept refugees. But member states would still be obliged to take the contingent assigned by the bloc. “No one should be able to buy their way out of this,” one diplomat told Handelsblatt.
“Finding a solution is not a question of money,” Karl Brinke, migration analyst at the German Institute for Economic Research, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “You can’t solve anything with money. We need a common E.U. refugee policy.”
Tuesday’s meeting only brought modest progress on longer term measures to address the crisis. Harder decisions, such as how to address large numbers of refugees heading for one country with an automatic distribution mechanism, have been put off until next year.
Hungary, which has drawn criticism for its heavy-handed treatment of refugees, remains opposed to organized resettlement because it does not want to be considered a “front-line nation” like Italy and Greece. Diplomats said it was unclear what would happen to the 54,000 refugees currently in Hungary earmarked for relocation under the scheme.
Earlier on Tuesday U.S. president Barack Obama came out in support of a fair distribution mechanism within the European Union. In a telephone call to Angela Merkel, the White House said the two leaders had “agreed on the need for a Europe-wide solution in which all European member states accept their fair share of refugees.”
The United States also plans to significantly increase its aid for victims of the civil war in Syria and is to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Chancellor Merkel is said to favor a long term internationally co-ordinated plan to resolve the conflict in Syria in cooperation with the United States and Turkey.
The majority of the roughly four million Syrians who have fled their country are now in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and E.U. leaders aim to provide more aid to these countries in the future.
The European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, recently proposed €1 billion ($1.11 billion) in aid for Turkey alone.
Officials in Berlin said that the short-term plan calls for defining safe countries of origin, which would include both the Western Balkan nations and Pakistan, and possibly even Afghanistan. This classification means that people from these countries could be deported more quickly.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com