The European Commission has submitted a proposal to find a fairer way to admit and distribute asylum seekers in the EU. But it’s up to the member states to decide, and many don’t accept the proposed distribution of migrants. The EURACTIV network reports.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is said to have lobbied the Commission hard. On 27 May, the executive unveiled concrete proposals, detailing its plans for the relocation of 40,000 refugeees 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, voting by qualified majority, after consultation with the European Parliament. However, it looks like the plan will be rejected.
France and Germany, the two countries dubbed “the engine of EU integration”, on 1 June urged the Commission to make corrections to its plan to admit and distribute asylum seekers.
In the meantime, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear that the EU executive would not back down.
Meanwhile, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni has appealed to member states for cooperation and solidarity.
“Italy receives two thirds of the irregular immigrants who arrive in Europe and is the third (most popular) country after Germany and Sweden for number of requests for political asylum. We play our part, sharing the welcome process according to quotas would be a fair criterion”.
All politicians use the word “quota” to describe the distribution key invented by the Commission, which insists that the term is innaccuate.
Under the Commission’s scheme, the 28 member states would be required to accept asylum seekers in proportion to the size of their economy, unemployment rate, and population.
The proposed key is based on a distribution index that gives population size a weight of 40%, 40% based on economic growth, 10% on unemployment, and 10% on previous engagements with asylum seekers.
“Even if most migrants (don’t) stay in Italy, Italy’s coasts are one of the stops for reaching the northern states of Europe,” Gentiloni said. “Immigration isn’t only an Italian problem,” he added, admitting that some countries disagreed on migrant quotas.
On 3 June, after a meeting with First-Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, Gentiloni said Italy “continues to fully support” the Commission’s agenda on migration and feels “comforted” by the “relative optimism” of his guest, who said he believed that the European Union could reach an agreement.
France, Germany want corrections
At first supporting the immigration strategy, France made a U-turn after the Commission unveiled its quota system.
This may appear to be a political manoeuvre, as the centre-left government is being harshly criticized by the extreme and center-right for being lax on immigration.
Now France would like to adapt the quota numbers, and asks that the refugees already arrived in France be retroactively taken into account.
Speaking to EURACTIV, Secretary of State for European affairs Harlem Desir, who started his political career as an anti-racism activist, said France wanted to protect its sovereignty by choosing who could be a political refugee or not.
“Four or five countries currently receive around 70% of the EU’s refugees, so it is only right that we share the effort. We are in favour of an emergency allocation system, to enable all countries to play their part in the reception of refugees. But this should stop short of a fixed quota system,” he said
Germany has signalled overall approval towards the Commission’s proposal, but also called for corrections. The German government’s integration officer, Aydan Özoguz (SPD), conceded that a common refugee policy “in which the burden is fairly shared among the member states” was needed for a functioning Europe. She added: “I would hope that the other EU member states meet their responsibilities.”
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) called for further negotiations. “We are working to ensure that we come to a compromise,” de Maiziere said on 2 June. He reiterated the proposal he had submitted on 1 June together with his French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve, in which the number of asylum seekers already taken in should be given greater consideration in the distribution key.
Only those refugees should be included in the quota system “that have prospects of permanent residence in the EU”, demanded de Maizière. For the others, there should be a fair and process of rappatriation conducted by the respective country of first asylum. If the outcome of this process is negative, these refugees should then – “possibly with European aid” – be returned to their home countries, the minister said.
Spain rejects the plan
The Spanish government has rejected the Commission’s proposal to place refugees on its territory. The executive’s plan should be “proportionate, fair and realistic”, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Manuel García-Margallo.
Margallo also pointed out the effort that Madrid is trying to manage a constant flow of illegal immigrants from the Spanish North African exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, and from the Canary Islands.
Poland accepts Christians only
Polish Prime Minster Ewa Kopacz has said clearly that she opposes any kind of mandatory or quota system. She added that she supported the idea of a system based on voluntary acceptance by member states of a number of refugees – but it would have to be member states which decide on the number, not any European institution.
Consequently, it is more than likely that Poland will vote against the proposal. And the October parliamentary elections will not change anything – the party leading in polls, Law and Justice, is further to the right of the political spectrum than the current government and will not support loosening the policy towards the refugees or transfer of more powers to Brussels.
Since the Commission’s proposal has been revealed, Kopacz has agreed that Poland would admit 60 families from Syria. Yet they would be selected based on religious critieria – the refugees should all be Christian.
This position of the Polish government has been criticised by human rights NGOs. Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights’ Polish called for accepting the asylum seekers based on non-religious criteria and for increasing the number of refugees accepted in general.
There is currently a strong anti-Muslim campaign forming in the Polish public sphere (including posters in major cities), with nationalist agroups attempting to convince the population that accepting Muslim refugees is tantamount to accepting terrorists. There was a backlash against this campaign among the intellectual elite, but Polish society remains unfriendly towards Muslims.
In fact, the Spring 2015 Pew Reasearch Center poll showed that over a half of Poles had negative feelings towards Muslims. Among the big six of EU member states, only Italians are more hostile. All this takes place despite the fact that Poland is the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous country of the EU, with more than 90% population being ethnically Polish and at least two thirds being active Catholics, and with more than 90% being at least nominally Catholic.
Prague wants to make its own decisions
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is strongly against EU migrant quotas. The government wants to help, but on a basis of a sovereign state decision and not as a part of a compulsory system.
“We support the right of countries to freely choose the scope of their solidarity, which we have also demonstrated by our decision to provide a home for a number of Syrian families,” the Social Democrat said. Last year, the Czech Republic granted asylum, or a similar degree of protection, to 765 people, mostly from Ukraine, Syria and Cuba.
“Resettlement cannot solve cause of recent tragedy because it does not lie on the European coasts but behind them. Therefore, the EU should have enough courage to solve it primarily there,” Sobotka added. According to the Czech premier, it is necessary to help refugees as close as possible to their regions of origin. The EU should also help countries with the highest number of displaced persons, such as Turkey and Jordan.
“To this end, we have established a special programme to assist refugees in their regions of origin, for which the government is earmarking CZK 100 million annually, starting from this year,” Sobotka said.
The ANO movement and Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), another two members of the coalition government, are also against quotas for refugees.
Czech MEPs also do not agree with the Commission’s proposal. A high percentage reject compulsory resettlement.
Slovakia eager to join the blocking minority
On several occasions, the Slovak government proclaimed its readiness to join the blocking minority in the Council if member states decide to vote on the proposal by a qualified majority.
Prime Minister Robert Fico said, “We have to show solidarity, but solely on voluntary basis.” Fico does not consider it fair “that someone is dictating to us that we have to take the migrants” and calls for “alternative programmes” for the country, such as humanitarian aid or deployment of doctors to countries of origin of the refugees.
Interior Minister Robert Kali?ák described the Commissions proposal as “insincere and hypocritical”, because of the EU´s refusal to accept Bulgaria and Romania into Schengen due to a “fear of Roma migration”. “We will not let Bulgarian and Romanian Roma to Europe but we don’t have problems with North African migrants?” he said pointing out that the African immigrants do not have a vital social infrastructure in Slovakia. “Even if we accept them, 80-90% of them will run away. That is the experience from the past,” added Kali?ák.
Slovakia has one of the toughest asylum policies in the EU. For example, last year 331 people applied for asylum, but only 14 of them were accepted.
Bulgaria feels overlooked by the Commission
Bulgaria, a country which is itself struggling to cope with massive arrivals of Syrian refugees from Turkey, feels overlooked by the Commission, which decided that only Italy and Greece would benefit from the relocation scheme. Instead of other countries sharing Sofia’s burden, Bulgaria has to take an additional 672 immigrants.
Bulgaria hasn’t publically expressed its discontent, but it is highly unlikely that Sofia would vote in favour of the Commission proposal in its present form.
Romania is sympathetic
In Romania, the European agenda on migration has not been much of an issue. Due to its opening to the Black Sea, which may constitute an alternative route for asylum-seekers heading into Europe, Bucharest has a significant interest in finding a working solution.
The country’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, told Al Jazeera that Europe cannot “raise a wall” against the migrants. “We have to understand that those people are coming in search of a better life because they are afraid in their own countries. We have to find public policies for integrating the majority of them,” the premier said.
But Ponta has other problems, now being pressured to resign over allegations of forgery, tax evasion and money laundering.
Meeting on short notice for an extraordinary summit on 23 April 2015, EU leaders dealt Jean-Claude Juncker a double-blow on immigration. First, his proposal for legal migration was not supported. Second, he tried to secure resettlement across Europe for 10,000 refugees. Instead, he had to settle for a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement for those qualifying for protection.
EU leaders decided to triple annual funding to €120 million to the Operation Triton, an EU frontier operation off of the coast of Italy, putting it at the same level of funding as the defunct Italian Mare Nostrum mission.
Among 17 proposals in a summit communiqué, leaders agreed to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers". It is unclear how that may be achieved, and several EU leaders said they would need a UN mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country, along with Sweden, takes in a large proportion of asylum-seekers, called for a change in the EU's system of managing asylum claims to better distribute the pressures across the bloc.
It also became known that the EU is seeking United Nations Security Council approval to seize vessels used to traffic migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya, though Russia has signaled it would not allow destruction of the vessels.