A proposed refugee quota plan set out by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met with mixed reactions in European capitals. Eastern European nations were especially wary of endorsing the new scheme.
EU nations need to enact rules mandating the acceptance of 160,000 refugees and to create a long-term plan to address the refugee crisis, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a speech on the state of the European Union on Wednesday.
"The refugee crisis will not simply go away," he told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "It is high time we act."
His plan for EU countries to introduce compulsory measures for the relocation of refugees echoed a similar appeal made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Saying Germany must "lead the way" in the refugee crisis, she called for binding agreements on the distribution of asylum seekers.
"If Europe fails in this refugee crisis, it betrays its founding principles," she told German lawmakers on Wednesday. "We cannot just fix a ceiling and say I don't care about anything above that."
Germany has accepted more refugees than any other EU nation and expects to receive 800,000 applications for asylum this year. Merkel said Germany was ready to accept 500,000 people annually over several years.
The EU Commission proposed to redistribute 54,000 people from Hungary to other EU member states, along with 50,400 from Greece and 15,600 from Italy. Based on current data, these would mostly be Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis.
Strong support in Berlin, Paris, Stockholm
Paris already gave its support to the plan, saying it would take in 24,000 refugees this year, exactly the figure proposed by the Commission. Madrid, which had called the quota for Spain too high, said earlier this week that it would accept whatever number of people it is allocated. Juncker's plan calls for about 15,000 refugees to go to Spain.
Both Great Britain and Ireland, which both have legal exemptions from the relocation plan, announced they would welcome 20,000 and 520 refugees, respectively, from camps outside of Europe.
While other nations, including Sweden, have also come out in favor of mandatory refugee distribution rules that take the host country's size, population and economic situation into account, not all of the EU's 28 members want Brussels determining how many refugees are allocated.
Central European countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are expected to put up a fight against the relocation scheme and push for governments to decide on which and how many refugees they are willing to host.
"The compulsory quotas are not a good solution," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said in a statement. "To continue with a discussion about their establishment all across Europe only prevents us from taking really important and necessary steps."
Sharing the refugee load
Under current EU law, called the Dublin Agreement, the nation where a refugee first enters the European Union is responsible for processing the person's asylum request. This has forced EU border nations, especially Italy, Hungary and Greece, to cope every day with thousands of new refugees, most of whom want to continue traveling farther into the EU.
The main Polish opposition candidate in October's elections for prime minister, Beata Szydlo, said Warsaw should not bow to pressure to accept more refugees than it chooses. Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Tuesday that her country could take in more than the 2,000 people it announced earlier. Under Juncker's plan, Poland would be asked to take in over 9,000.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was vocally opposed to relocation quotas ahead of Juncker's speech, but now his country will now benefit from the scheme, having taken in tens of thousands. Under Juncker's proposed plan 54,000 would be moved to other EU states.
Juncker reminded the eastern European nations that their citizens were welcomed in large numbers when they fled Communist regimes before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who said most of those arriving were economic migrants and the EU should emulate Australia's "stop the boats" policy to halt a flow of "biblical proportions."
Up for debate next week
More than 378,000 migrants have entered Europe this year, including over 256,000 crossing to Greece and nearly 120,000 sailing across the Mediterranean to reach Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. Hungary has estimated that 160,000 refugees have crossed its border this year.
Some 85 percent of people trying to reach Europe are refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
"It is very important that Europe continues to provide access to territory to all those who are seeking protection here," Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Crisis in Europe, said in a statement on Tuesday.
EU interior ministers are scheduled to discuss Juncker's proposals during a meeting on Monday.
sms/kms (Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP)