EU ministers approved a plan on Tuesday (22 September) to share out 120,000 refugees across its 28 states, overriding vehement opposition from four ex-Communist eastern nations.
The relocation deal covers 66,000 refugees who would be moved from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, plus another 54,000 who had previously been earmarked to be relocated from Hungary before it refused to back the plan [read more].
It also involves the creation of “hotspots” – special centres in frontline states for receiving and processing asylum seekers and separating economic migrants from refugees fleeing conflict.
Last week, ministers approved a separate plan dating from May for relocating 40,000 refugees.
Ministers had hoped to achieve consensus, rather than ramming through a vote in which Easterner European member states would be in the minority, fearing this could further poison relations.
Diplomats said interior ministers meeting in Brussels had voted to launch the scheme, backed by Germany and other big powers, in order to tackle the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two. EU decisions in the field of justice and home affairs can be taken by quality majority vote, when consensus is not possible.
The Czech Minister of the Interior, Milan Chovanec, tweeted that he had voted against it, along with colleagues from Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, with Finland abstaining.
Prague had earlier warned that any attempt to approve such a scheme would be unworkable and could end in “big ridicule” for governments and EU authorities.
“We will soon realise that the emperor has no clothes. Common sense lost today,” Chovanec wrote.
This year’s influx of nearly half a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa has plunged the EU into disputes over border controls and bitter recriminations over how to share out responsibility.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the plan was forced through despite opposition because it was an “emergency situation”.
“If we had not done this, Europe would have been even more divided,” he told a press conference.
With the relocation vote out of the way, Wednesday’s emergency EU summit (23 September) will focus on strengthening the bloc’s external borders, as well as giving extra funding to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and UN agencies.
Eastern states with no tradition of integrating large numbers of Muslims are anxious about the impact on their societies and keen to avoid any signal that might encourage even more desperate people to set sail across the Mediterranean for Europe.
“If we fail to find the right solution in the long term, the migrant crisis could truly threaten the existence of the European Union. But I am not a pessimist. I believe that we will find joint measures,” Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar told Reuters in an interview.
In Bratislava, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he was prepared to break the EU’s rules rather than accept the proposal.
“I would rather go to an infringement than to accept this diktat,” he said, quoted by Slovakia’s leading SME daily.
Hours earlier, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the 120,000 people the bloc was seeking to share out were equivalent to just 20 days’ worth of arrivals at the current rate.
“A relocation programme alone, at this stage in the crisis, will not be enough to stabilise the situation,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, urging the EU to set up reception facilities able to handle tens of thousands of refugees at a time.
Refugees and migrants arriving in Greece and Italy have been streaming north across the continent to reach more affluent nations such as Germany, triggering disputes between governments in central and eastern Europe as they alternately try to block the flow or shunt the burden on to their neighbours.
More trouble is expected as Greece will likely face pressure to accept outside help in managing its borders – renewing sovereignty concerns in Athens just months after it was forced to accept a huge eurozone bailout.
Norway became the latest member of Europe’s 26-nation Schengen area, where people can normally travel across frontiers without showing a passport, to say it would intensify border controls.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said Europe could expect a record one million people to request asylum this year, and almost half would probably qualify to be taken in.
In Germany, by far the most popular destination, the head of domestic intelligence said there were strong concerns that radical Islamists living in the country could try to recruit young refugees “who could be easy prey”.
EU leaders will hold an emergency summit on Wednesday at which they want to focus on ramping up aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, and tightening control of the bloc’s external frontiers.