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European Union: Bloc backs plan for stricter asylum reforms

Published June 8, 2023last updated June 8, 2023

EU nations have reached an agreement that would see countries either accept a share of asylum-seekers or pay into a fund managed by Brussels to care for migrants.

A migrant rescued by a merchant vessel is helped to disembark from a Malta Armed Forces patrol boat
Germany is pushing for exemptions in the reforms for families with children as well as unaccompanied minorsImage: Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS

The European Union's 27 member states have agreed on an initial plan to enact tougher asylum and migration policies across the bloc, officials announced on Thursday.

Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said the deal is a "good balance" of responsibility towards those seeking asylum and solidarity in the EU.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called the agreement a "historic success" for the EU. 

The agreement was reached hours after tense negotiations, as some EU members like Italy, Austria and the Netherlands, said the compromise proposal was not good enough. Poland and Hungary voted against the proposals, while Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained. 

"The compromise is not an easy one at all," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a statement. "If we could have decided the reform as a federal government on our own, it would have looked differently." 

Currently on a trip to South America, Baerbock said if Germany had not made concessions the attempt to share asylum-seekers across the bloc would have failed.

"If Germany had voted against the compromise today, together with Hungary and Poland, among others, a common European asylum policy based on solidarity would be dead for years," she said. "Instead, all those who want to raise national walls in Europe again would have a free pass."

EU countries reach deal on refugee hosting: Bernd Riegert reports

What we know about the reforms package so far

EU countries are tackling how asylum-seekers are processed at the border and relocated across Europe.

During the negotiations, Germany strongly advocated that families with children and unaccompanied minors would be exempted from new, tougher border procedures.

However, in the end, Berlin ultimately had to accept that families with children would likely be included in the new border policies, news agency DPA reported. 

Swedish Interior Minister Maria Stenergard, who chaired the talks, told a press conference that if the applicant had no chance of receiving asylum in the EU, they would be returned immediately.

All applications for asylum had to be processed within a maximum period of six months, Stenergard said. 

Plus, countries unwilling to accept asylum-seekers would have to provide financial assistance of up to €20,000 ($21,000) per migrant into a fund managed by Brussels to support those seeking protection, Stenergard said.

Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said where rejected asylum-seekers would be sent was a major sticking point during the talks and that interior ministers discussed whether it would be up to the member state rejecting an asylum application to determine where to send the person who applied for protection.

The issue of expanding "safe" countries, or countries where asylum-seekers can return, has been at the heart of the debate of the reform proposal package. 

Johansson said there was no concrete decision on the issue yet and they would have to revisit it again.

Proposal was 'difficult' for Germany

Germany's Faeser had said earlier Thursday that a new reform proposal on EU migration policy was "very difficult for us in Germany" to accept, as it did not include exceptions for families with children.

She made the comments as EU interior ministers gathered in Luxembourg in a bid to reach a deal on joint migration and asylum policy.

One of the contested reforms was the introduction of preliminary checks on asylum-seekers, who would then be sent back immediately if deemed that they did not have a chance to be granted asylum.

Berlin wants to secure exemptions for minors and families with children.

"We can only handle migration together as the whole EU," Faeser said ahead of the talks. "I feel there is a common understanding which could lead to an agreement, but not at any price."

Faeser said that Germany wanted to include enhanced rights for children in an EU migration deal.

Italy plan to limit migrant rights under fire

"On one point we still have a real problem from the German point of view, because we want the protection of children and families with children in border procedures," she said, adding that such protections would be in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Migration reforms must be solved 'together'

While the EU interior ministers meeting got underway in Luxembourg, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also held talks on migration reforms in Rome with Italy's Giorgia Meloni.

"Those who want to overcome the challenges associated with refugee migration can only do so together in the European Union," Scholz said. 

"All attempts to either leave the problems with someone else or to point the finger at others will fail," he added.

Italy's prime minister said that she was "convinced" that the bloc would reach an agreement on migration policy.

She said the situation becomes "difficult" when the responsibility for dealing with is shifted onto other partners.

Meloni said that she would travel to Tunisia along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Many migrant boats that attempt to traverse the Mediterranean in order to reach EU soil embark from the North African country.

Scholz reiterated Berlin's offer to take in migrants that had entered other countries on the EU's border.

rm, sdi/sms (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP, epd)

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