A majority of EU interior ministers approved Tuesday a contentious plan to redistribute 120,000 asylum seekers within their bloc, outvoting the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
“Decision on relocation for 120,000 persons adopted today, by large majority of member states,” the Luxembourg EU presidency wrote on Twitter.
The ministers had been under pressure to deliver a deal so that a redistribution controversy would not overshadow an EU crisis summit due to be held in Brussels on Wednesday.
“I think it’s unacceptable if Europe sends the message to the Europeans and the world that today there is no possible solution,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had said ahead of the vote.
But the bloc usually strives for consensus decision and there had been fears that a majority vote on such a sensitive issue could drive a damaging wedge between EU countries – on top of the animosity already created by Europe’s migration crisis.
The continent is contending with its most significant influx of migrants and refugees since World War II, many people fleeing from war-torn nations who qualify for international protection.
As of Monday, 467,000 migrants had reached the continent by sea, according to the International Organization for Migration. Nearly 40 per cent of them were Syrians.
EU nations had been asked to show solidarity with the most affected member states by taking in their share of asylum seekers. But while there was support for the concept, EU governments had locked horns over how refugee redistributions should be carried out.
Central and Eastern European countries had spoken out against mandatory schemes or fixed quotas under which the EU would decide how many refugees a member state should take in.
“Solidarity cannot be forced solidarity,” Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said in Warsaw.
Some of the dissenters had also worried that anything decided on the emergency relocation of the 120,000 asylum seekers – which comes on top of an already agreed move of 40,000 people out of Greece and Italy – would set a precedent for a permanent redistribution scheme being sought by Brussels.
Details on the plan approved Tuesday were not immediately available, but the EU could be faced with the prospect of now forcing the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to reluctantly take in hundreds of asylum seekers.
Most of them are expected to be moved out of Greece and Italy, where most of the migrants seeking access to Europe have first arrived.