Eastern European leaders have continued to reject a refugee redistribution plan supported by most EU nations. The issue has raised questions about whether true solidarity can be achieved within the bloc.
European Union leaders meeting at a two-day summit in Brussels failed early on Friday to bring any movement to negotiations on how to deal with the current influx of migrants, with a deep gap between eastern and western nations continuing to be apparent.
During two hours of heated debate, leaders from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic stood firm in their rejection of refugee redistribution quotas agreed on by a majority of EU member states. The quotas are seen as a measure of assistance to countries such as Greece and Italy, which have seen most of the migrants come to their shores over the Mediterranean.
After the meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that the bloc had a hard job ahead of it to reform asylum rules by a deadline of June next year when large-scale migration via the Mediterranean is expected to commence again as weather improves.
"Here we still have a lot of work to do. The points of view did not change. But there is a clear task to continue working until June next year," Merkel said.
'Highly divisive' quotas
The controversy within the bloc over the issue of quotas was given added fuel earlier in the week by European Council President Donald Tusk, who described the mandatory quotas as "highly divisive" and "ineffective."
Countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia welcomed Tusk's statement, but his words have been criticized by Austria, Germany, France and others.
In an interview with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Friday, the EU budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, also slammed Tusk for his comments.
"I greatly esteem the president of the European Council, but here he is clearly wrong," Oettinger said, saying that the bloc must show solidarity in the face of massive migration to Europe.
Strengthening external borders
However, the four eastern European countries making up the so-called Visegrad group — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — were fully behind an EU project aimed at enhancing border protection in Libya, which has now become the main launchpad for migrants and refugees wanting to come to Europe.
They offered €35 million ($41 million) to assist the Italian-led project in a move meant to demonstrate that they are actively working on solutions to the migration issue.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the EU's policy of defending its outer borders was the one that had "worked and operated well on the ground, delivered the result we have expected."
Rutte: 'Shameful' offer
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte criticized the offer, saying it was an attempt to bribe other countries that had accepted the redistribution quotas.
"What [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban is doing is shameful!" Rutte said at the end of the summit.
"If you allow that to happen, the EU becomes a place where each one does his shopping to buy what he likes," he added.
Orban has been leading eastern opposition to letting refugees and migrants into the bloc, among other things saying that the region would face a security threat, particularly from Muslims.
The summit is to continue on Friday, with topics such as the impact of the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the bloc likely to be at the forefront of discussions. Leaders will also discuss plans for the reform of the eurozone proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
On Thursday, the EU leaders agreed to extend existing tough economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and to back a new European defense force.
tj/ng (AFP, dpa, Reuters)