EU leaders are preparing for a difficult start to 2018 when heads of state weigh new measures to deal with illegal migration. But the European Commission and European Council leaders agree that they want to avoid putting migration proposals to a vote that could divide member states.
Disagreements over migration won’t go away: leaders made clear at the end of a two-day EU summit on Friday (15 December) that the issue will be prominent at the next three European Council meetings.
At the next summit in February, heads of state will discuss plans to carve out a new financial instrument aimed at decreasing the number of migrants who arrive in Europe illegally.
They will decide next year on reforming the Dublin regulation for asylum procedures and on whether to keep mandatory quotas for relocating refugees from Italy and Greece to other member states.
Council President Donald Tusk said on Friday that the leaders discussed how to create a new dedicated financial instrument that would be “a key priority in the multiannual financial framework”. He described their responses to his proposal as “univocally positive”.
The Commission will present proposals for the post-2020 multi-year EU budget next spring.
But Tusk admitted that striking a compromise will be tricky given divisions between the 28 heads of state of migration, and especially on mandatory quotas for relocating refugees.
He wants leaders to use a summit next June to make “the first decisions” on those reforms.
Finding consensus “appears very hard but we have to try our very best,” Tusk told reporters at a news conference. The heads of state will have another chance to weigh the proposals for migration reform at a summit in March.
Several leaders described their discussions over mandatory quotas on Thursday evening as contentious. Juncker said the group “controversially debated” Tusk’s proposal to reconsider the quota system.
The December summit was clouded by member states’ deep disagreement over quotas, which the Commission first proposed in 2015 to manage the rising number of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece.
Shortly before the summit began on Thursday, Tusk sent a letter to EU heads of state calling the system “ineffective” and divisive, and suggesting that leaders reconsider whether it works. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos then lashed out at Tusk and called his letter “anti-European”.
Several eastern European countries have sharply opposed the migration system. Last week, the Commission referred the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary to the European Court of Justice for ignoring quotas to relocate refugees.
But after Thursday’s discussions, several leaders expressed their disapproval of Tusk’s proposal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before leaving the Council headquarters early Friday morning, “I made it very clear that I’m not pleased with the simple statement that the rules we’ve put in place up until now don’t work.”
Germany took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis, and has advocated for keeping the quota system.
Tusk acknowledged on Friday afternoon that his letter was controversial. But he stuck to his guns.
“I didn’t change my mind,” Tusk said during a joint news conference with Juncker and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, who is ending Estonia’s six-month presidency of the Council of the EU this month.
“The topic of mandatory quotas is for sure very important, but this is not the solution for the problem. And on the other hand, this is the most time-consuming issue or dimension when it comes to the migration debate and talks here in Brussels and other capitals,” Tusk added.
The European Council president has emphasised that his priority is introducing broader proposals on reforming the Dublin asylum rules.
“The most important goal is to keep Europe united in a set of effective actions or efforts to stop or reduce this illegal influx,” he said.
But leaders ended Friday’s meetings in clear disagreement over how to introduce those reforms. Juncker emphasised that he stands by the Commission’s system.
“I don’t understand how this could give rise to such emotion. I don’t know why we think that relocation could be a threat to civilisation in Europe. We’re talking about a total of 35,000 people,” Juncker told the news conference.
The Commission president tried to defuse tensions by making clear that he disagrees with Avramopoulos’ criticism of Tusk.
“Donald Tusk is not anti-European. He is a pro-European,” Juncker said.
The two presidents managed to agree on one aspect of the upcoming negotiations towards a June decision on migration reform. Both Tusk and Juncker said that they want to avoid putting the proposals to a vote that could pit member states against each other.
Juncker said that several heads of state suggested during Thursday evening’s dinner debate that they could vote by qualified majority to reach a decision. Juncker said he is not a fan of that option.
“To some extent it is always breaking the unity of member states,” he said.
Tusk, who will be in charge of trying to broker a compromise between the leaders, called qualified majority voting “an effective method”.
“But for sure qualified majority voting is not a synonym of solidarity. In politics, it’s quite the opposite,” he added.
“This is why for me, my first intention is to find a compromise, a consensus, among all 28. Because this is the best method to protect solidarity as the best kind of relations between our member states.”