EU backs plan to disperse 120,000 refugees
Four eastern European countries outvoted while Czech PM warns quotas could end in ridicule
Migrants wait in front of Croatian police officers near the entrance of a reception centre close to Croatia’s border with Serbia in Opatovac. European governments have pushed through by majority vote a divisive deal to share the resettlement of 120,000 refugees across the bloc. Photograph: Zoltan Balough/EPA.
European governments have pushed through by majority vote a divisive deal to share 120,000 refugees after clashing over whether the quotas would be imposed on reluctant countries or left to be accepted on a voluntary basis.
Interior ministers met in Brussels for the second time in a week on Tuesday, aware that failure to agree a system of sharing would carry a very high price in the face of Europe‘s biggest ever refugee crisis.
In a highly unusual move because of the lack of consensus, the decision to share 120,000 refugees was put to a vote which the supporters of quotas easily won but which will feed central European resentment of what they perceive as western - and especially German - bullying.
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said she had stressed at the meeting the need to show the world that the EU can act in “a swift and decisive manner” on an issue of such importance as the refugee crisis.
“Unfortunately it was not possible to achieve a consensus but the vast majority of member states were in favour of the measure and it has been adopted by a majority vote,” she said. “EU Member States have shown that at a time of great difficulty, they retain the capacity to act.”
The Minister said that, while the relocation measures would make a real contribution towards addressing the crisis in Europe, a set of wider solutions needed to be advanced.
A summit of EU leaders on migration is being held on Wednesday in Brussels at the behest of Angela Merkel, the german chancellor. The leaders did not want their summit to be hijacked by an unseemly squabble over quotas and ordered the interior ministers to strike a deal.
The vote alienated the opponents on a highly sensitive issue and split Europe into those who decide and those who have to accept.
Of the 120,000, the nine countries of central and eastern Europe are being asked to take only around 15,000, with Germany and France between them allotted double that.
The resettlement figures are small compared to the hundreds of thousands making their way to Europe from the Middle East. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast on Tuesday that the numbers entering the EU this year would exceed 1 million, with more than 400,000 staying long-term in the end.
But the issue of the 120,000 became a signature contest because, along with a previous agreement to share another 40,000, it was the first time that an attempt had been made to agree refugee quotas across the EU.
Theresa May, the UK home secretary, declared that “we need, as Europe, to get on with the job“, while simultaneously disengaging from any common endeavour. “The UK will not be participating in the [refugee-sharing] scheme.”
Uniquely in the EU, Britain has refused to take part in the resettlement of the 120,000 and has a legal exemption from having to take part. The other two countries with similar optouts, Ireland and Denmark, are participating.
A little more than half are to be moved to the rest of the EU from Greece and Italy. The remaining 54,000, initially planned to relieve Hungary, whose government takes the hardest anti-immigration line in the EU and refuses to accept the help, will be reserved for other needy countries on the Balkan migratory route, such as Croatia and Slovenia. If the 54,000 are not resettled within 18 months, more refugees can be moved from Greece and Italy.
EU governments have been battling over the policy since May as the numbers arriving have risen drastically, resulting in Hungary building razorwire fences on its southern borders and passing laws this week authorising the army to use tear gas and rubber bullets against migrants. It is engaged in a war of words with Germany, Croatia, Romania, Austria, and the European commission.
Germany unilaterally opened its doors to Syrians last month, before rowing back and reasserting national border controls in the middle of Europe‘s free-travel Schengen area. On Tuesday German rail announced it was halting train traffic to Austria and Hungary until 4 October.
Apart from the fight over quotas, much of Tuesday‘s negotiations focused on how to keep refugees and migrants out through quicker deportation procedures, the faster screening and fingerprinting of people arriving on the EU‘s southern borders, and helping neighbouring countries in the Balkans and the Middle East, notably Turkey, to stop people heading for the EU.