Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, will on Wednesday unveil what is being touted as the EU’s most ambitious effort to date to deal with the refugee influx that is already casting a dark cloud on the continent’s humanitarian record.
According to officials briefed on the plan, Mr Juncker is vowing to be ambitious — challenging reluctant political leaders to shelter tens of thousands more migrants than they have previously agreed.
The plan will be a mix of ideas first proposed in May — many of which have already been rejected by EU leaders — and new policies aimed at both stemming the migrant flow and better handling those that do arrive on Europe’s shore.
What to do about the tens of thousands of refugees washing ashore in Greece and Italy — and now making their way through the Balkans into Hungary — has long been the most contentious issue facing the EU.
At an emergency summit in April, called after more than 400 migrants were killed when a boat capsized off the coast of Italy, leaders explicitly stripped out any mention of numbers after Brussels suggested a “pilot project” to relocate just 5,000 of those seeking safe harbour in Greece and Italy.
A month later, many countries reacted angrily when Mr Juncker ignored the summit’s decision and proposed a mandatory quota to resettle 20,000 migrants. At yet another summit, they instead went for an awkward compromise: they would resettle 40,000 — but through a voluntary scheme that ultimately came up with offers for only 32,000 places, with Germany accounting for a third of those.
Now, officials say, Mr Juncker’s new proposal will increase that scheme by 120,000, to 160,000, and reintroduce the concept of a mandatory quota for each EU country — something that has been fiercely resisted in the poorer countries of central and eastern Europe, particularly Hungary
Permanent quota scheme
Under current EU rules, known as the Dublin system, all migrants arriving in the EU must be registered and processed in the county of their arrival. Senior EU officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now admit this system is broken. Greece has been unable to manage for years, and now Italy and Hungary are becoming overburdened with the task.
In May, Mr Juncker promised to propose a new, permanent system that would be automatically triggered when massive influxes occur. Under the system, quotas would be established based on each EU country’s size, economic health and the number of refugees it is already sheltering.
Ms Merkel has been a strong advocate of such a system, but other countries have been lukewarm; reforming Dublin has been on the EU’s agenda for years and changing it has been nearly impossible.
According to French officials, however, François Hollande, the French president, is now on board for a permanent system that includes mandatory quotas, and Mr Hollande was expected to send a letter with Ms Merkel confirming their support ahead of Mr Juncker’s address on Wednesday.
Although French backing is not a deal-clincher — more visceral objections have come from eastern Europe — the three largest EU countries (Germany, France and Italy — the UK is exempt from EU migration schemes) now support the plan, which could give it significant momentum.
Tackling the source
Rhetorically, EU leaders have spent nearly as much time talking about the need to stop the flow of migrants as they have actually dealing with them once they arrive in Europe. But in practical terms, this has proven difficult.
EU officials at first touted a plan for military action against traffickers, modelled on an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. But that ran into international opposition, particularly at the United Nations, and has been quietly sidelined for now.
Instead, the EU has gradually expanded its naval operation in the Mediterranean aimed at rescuing refugees at sea. EU officials claim it has already saved 1,500 lives just a month after it was launched in July. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has also pushed for renewing the initiative to more actively capture and destroy trafficking vessels on the high seas.
Officials say one of the major new initiatives to be included in Mr Juncker’s plan is an African trust fund, which would total more than €1.5bn to help countries in sub-Saharan Africa stem the outflows and better integrate their societies.
Several EU governments — including France and Poland — have argued that while they are prepared to take in refugees fleeing war-torn regions, they do not want such policies to allow in so-called economic migrants, who are attempting to get to Europe for work.
The process of sifting through who is genuinely in need of political asylum and those migrating for economic reasons is fraught with complexity, but Mr Juncker’s plan will attempt to deal with it through a number of tools.
First is an attempt to determine which countries are considered “safe” — in other words, countries where passport holders cannot seek asylum. One of the plans under consideration would declare all EU candidate countries — which includes Turkey and the Balkans — as safe countries.
Second is the expansion of a Commission “hotspot” programme, where teams from EU police, asylum and border agencies flood a country overwhelmed by arrivals to help local authorities register and sort through applications during an unexpected migrant influx.
Lastly, is the complicated issue of harmonising benefit schemes and the asylum process. Commission officials believe countries like Germany become refugee magnets because they more frequently grant asylum applications — and the application process takes longer, allowing arrivals to integrate as they wait. The plan will attempt to set new EU-wide benchmarks.
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