EU nixes migrant-quota plan. A sign of a deeper division within Europe?

In the spring, European leaders came out strongly in support of a united plan to deal with the flood of migrants trying to enter the EU. But the plan to divvy up migrants among EU members by quota fell apart amid acrimony.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
A group of Afghans walk along a road after crossing the Hungarian-Serbian border illegally near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, in June. Hungary says almost 60,000 migrants have entered the country illegally so far this year, and on Wednesday announced it would throw up a 12-foot high fence along its 110-mile border with non-European Union member Serbia.

The European Union successfully agreed on a plan to relocate and resettle 60,000 asylum seekers across the bloc, but instead of a sign of solidarity, the agreement has created more bitter divisions.

The EU’s immediate goal – to relieve Italy and Greece from the unprecedented pressure of migrants attempting to reach their shores from war-torn Libya – has been met in numerical terms. But the longer vision to seed a culture of shared responsibility for refugees and migrants has receded. 

The plan agreed Friday at a summit in Brussels would relocate 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans currently in Greece and Italy. It also covers an additional 20,000 refugees not yet inside the EU. 

In April, as 900 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean in a single weekend, EU ministers gathered immediately to show their will to tackle the crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel characterized it early today as the “biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor.”

The European Commission later unveiled a plan that made it mandatory for all members to accept a precise number of migrants, based on such factors as their population, economic size, and unemployment numbers. (Britain, Ireland, and Denmark were exempted due to various out-in or opt-out clauses.)

But yesterday, the “mandatory” policy was dropped after countries balked, arguing they had neither the infrastructure nor the political mandate to accept more migrants. And more countries have been exempted, including Hungary and Bulgaria, where land crossings have spiked.

“Given the scale of the global refugee crisis, making relocation mandatory was at the heart of the proposal,” says Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels. “The key objective of mandatory [quotas] was really a means so that no members could shirk their responsibilities…. The primary goal of trying to relieve pressure on Italy and Greece has been achieved to some extent. But that is a very limited form of solidarity.”

Political backlash

The compromise came after nearly seven hours of heated late-night debate that left leaders tense and tired. It wasn't exactly a surprise: The vows of solidarity in the spring buckled under the pressure of continued migration, and not just via the Mediterranean.

Hungary this week said it was going to build a fence to keep out migrants from Serbia. Italy faced off against France last week as police started checking identities along a frontier that is supposed to be borderless. Austria said it would put in similar controls along its border with Hungary. And this week, when a ferry strike in the French port of Calais revealed the numbers of migrants seeking to head to Britain, local French officials blamed Britain for the predicament.

More battles are sure to come. The relocation plan is to be hammered out by July. But it only covers a small portion of the hundreds of thousands expected to try to enter Europe this year.

"It is, to tell the disturbing truth, a very modest effort," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose idea it was to set a mandatory policy, said Friday.

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