EU set for decisive week in response to divisive migration crisis


For months, the European Union has tried to get the refugee crisis under control. But migrants continue arriving by the thousands and disagreements about the response keep festering. Can EU leaders and interior ministers finally deliver a credible plan?

As a summer of relentless migrant arrivals and rising acrimony comes to an end, the European Union is headed for a pivotal week in the struggle to get a handle on its refugee crisis.

EU interior ministers will Tuesday attempt to thrash out a compromise on a plan to redistribute 120,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe. A day later, EU leaders will convene for a crisis summit to tackle broader migration concerns.

“This issue, left unresolved, will undoubtedly lead to human suffering for the refugees, to political turmoil in our member states … and to tensions which Europe cannot afford to have,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans has warned.

“The crisis we are all witnessing is a test of our humanity and responsibility,” EU President Donald Tusk wrote in his invitation letter to the leaders. “It is essential to establish a credible European migration policy.”

The continent is dealing with its most significant influx of migrants and asylum seekers since World War II, many of them fleeing conflict-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.

Almost 450,000 people have reached Europe by sea this year, while more than 2,900 have died trying, according to UN estimates.

EU rules requiring asylum applications to be filed in the first country of arrival have all but been discarded by overwhelmed frontline member states.

Some have resorted to border controls in their effort to stem the flow of refugees – a startling sight in a bloc where freedom of movement is one of its most cherished rights.

The principle of solidarity is also at the core of the EU, and yet proposals for everyone to take in their fair share of asylum seekers have left member states at each other’s throats.

Tusk hopes to refocus the discussion at the summit on the EU’s overall approach to the crisis. He would like leaders to talk about help for frontline member states, support for other affected countries and aid to humanitarian organizations.

“No country can face this crisis alone,” French President Francois Hollande recently said.

But the effort to recentre the bloc’s response may stumble on a bitter debate about refugee redistribution.

Central and Eastern European countries have been resisting the effort to share asylum seekers across the EU, because they do not believe that they should be told how many refugees they can handle. They also argue that the approach cannot work because asylum seekers will not want to stay in their assigned countries.

“Provided we agree on the quotas, will we be dispatching the refugees like ‘camp inmates’ in trains to countries where they do not want to be and where nobody wants them just because we ‘democratically coordinated’ this as Europeans?” the Slovenian daily newspaper Delo asked on Saturday.

The commission, the EU’s executive, has been insisting on a mandatory redistribution scheme – with a set contingent of asylum seekers assigned to different member states – after an initial voluntary effort fell short.

But the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have jointly declared such binding quotas “unacceptable.” Latvia and Lithuania have also resisted.

“We insist that it has to be a voluntary process,” Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said.

Pressure is mounting for the holdouts to be overruled with a majority vote on the redistribution of the 120,000 asylum seekers. But there are fears that such a move would drive a wedge between EU countries. The interior ministers will have to decide how to proceed on Tuesday.

Hungary has taken the toughest stance, led by its right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban.

He will come face-to-face with his EU counterparts on Wednesday for the first time since fencing off and brutally closing down Hungary’s borders, deploying tear gas against refugees and forcing their flow onto his neighbours.

So far, Budapest has steadfastly held its ground, and whether other EU leaders can get Orban to be more receptive remains to be seen.

“We will … need to discuss our responsibilities at a national level. No one should shy away from them,” Tusk said in his summit invitation letter. “Shifting the responsibility and putting the blame on one another must definitely come to an end.”