EU leaders openly quarrelled yesterday (25 June) during the first day of the EU summit over the distribution of migrants from Italy and Greece, and were unable to adopt summit conclusions over a wording controversy.
Visibly tired, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker didn’t hide his frustration after late night summit talks. His attempt to impose mandatory quotas on member states to alleviate the migrant burden from Italy and Greece was again rejected after a first failed attempt in January.
Speaking to the press at 3AM, Juncker said that it was “not normal” to work under such conditions. He recalled that the previous day he had also addressed the press at 3 in the morning, and had returned to his office at 6.
“This is not a normal way of working, neither for us, nor for you,” he said, addressing the press. “Therefore I protest against those methods. I’m still awake, but when a person is tired, I cannot take the right decisions and I dislike this way of working,” Juncker said.
The Commission President said EU leaders had agreed that 40,000 migrants be relocated from Italy and Greece to other EU countries. Another 20,000 would be resettled from outside Europe to EU member states, he said.
But details remained vague, as it is now understood that the Commission’s proposed quota system was rejected and that a voluntary system would apply instead.
EU officials told the press that the discussion on migration had turned so tense that Council President Donald Tusk at some point gave the floor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, to announce his plans for the referendum on EU membership. This intermezzo allowed the discussion to continue in a more calm way.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who was reportedly furious at the failure to adopt a mandatory quota system, blasted those leaders, mostly from Eastern European countries, who spoke openly against the system, saying they were “not to the level of Europe”.
In reply, Lithuanian Prime Minister Dalia Grybauskaite reportedly said she couldn’t care less about Renzi’s problems.
Following the end of the talks, it emerged that Hungary and Bulgaria, which experienced an unprecedented immigration pressure, would be exempted from taking migrants from Italy and Greece.
In addition, tensions emerged between Juncker and Tusk, who reportedly took the side of the countries from Central and Eastern Europe who also have experienced a major immigration pressure over the last year.
‘I don’t care’
A journalist asked Juncker if he had used the phrase ‘Je m’en fous’, (‘I don’t care’ in French), when referring to way the Council President was handling the debate. He replied, “Don’t believe those who are tweeting me, don’t believe those who are tweeting” and simulated a combat with Tusk. The body language of the latter, however, indicated that he didn’t like the teasing.
Downplaying his failure to secure mandatory quotas, Juncker said he had indeed pronounced the words ‘Je m’en fous’, because it was more important that the relocation of the 60,000 migrants takes place, than if it is compulsory or voluntary.
“I am more interested in the 60,000 than of the 28,” he emblematically said, with reference to the member states.
A clear sign of the divisions concerning migration was the delay of almost two hours between the end of the debate and the press conference. EU leaders are reported to have disagreed on the formulation of the Council conclusions on migration, and apparently this is why they were not published the same night, as the Council had previously promised.
“The Conclusions have been agreed, but there is disagreement over their interpretation,” a source said.
Reportedly, point 4.b of the Council conclusions speaks of “The rapid adoption by the Council of a Decision setting up a temporary and exceptional mechanism to this effect; to that end, all Member States will agree by the end of July BY CONSENSUS on the distribution of such persons.”
The words “by consensus” are said to have proven controversial, because according to EU treaties, immigration issues are decided by majority vote. According to some opinions, this was a substitution of the treaty, and a dangerous precedent.
Juncker promised to return to the matter at the end of the summit later today and to be more explicit.
On 27 May, the Commission proposed the relocation of 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, as well as the resettlement of 20,000 from outside the EU, across member states. The Commission's scheme needs to be adopted by the Council of the European Union, voting by qualified majority.
It was clear from the outset that the proposal stood no chance of being accepted by most member states, given the reactions of EU leaders at the extraordinary summit on migration on 23 April (see background).
It also became obvious that many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing, but consider that the proposed quotas need to be reworked.
On 16 June, EU interior ministers rejected the plan based on mandatory quotas. The EU summit on 25-26 June will discuss the issue further.