European Union ministers agreed on how to share the responsibility for looking after migrants and refugees after long negotiations got Italy and Greece to sign up to a deal that has eluded the bloc for nearly a decade.
Home affairs ministers, including Cyprus, from the 27-member bloc sealed the deal, hoping to end years of division dating back to 2015 when more than a million people – mostly fleeing war in Syria – reached the EU across the Mediterranean.
Germany’s Nancy Faeser hailed the agreement as “historic”. The bloc’s top migration official said it was “a win-win” situation for all EU member states.
“This is a great, great achievement, showing that it’s possible to work together on migration. We are so much stronger when we work together,” home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said.
Hosting immigrants has become an increasingly divisive issue in the bloc since 2015.
Unable to agree on sharing the responsibility, EU countries mostly focused on bringing down arrivals, with UN data showing fewer than 160,000 people made it across the sea last year to the bloc of half a billion people.
Nearly 2,500 people died or went missing in the dangerous crossing over the same period.
Countries on the EU’s southern edge, including Italy, Cyprus and Greece, have long demanded more help to cope with the numbers of people arriving on their shores.
Richer countries, including Germany and Sweden, have baulked at how many head onto their soil.
Eastern EU countries such as Poland and Hungary refused to host anyone from the mainly-Muslim Middle East and North Africa, while right-wing and populist parties across the bloc have fuelled the debate with anti-immigration rhetoric.
“You can still win and lose any election in any member state on migration. It is an illustration of how contentious this issue is,” said an EU diplomat involved in the negotiations told Reuters.
Earlier Thursday, Italy and Greece demanded last-minute changes to the proposed agreement, pushing for a cut in the number of people each state would take on and laxer rules to send people back to countries outside of the EU.
Under the deal that eventually came together and is to be finalised ahead of a 2024 EU election, each country would be responsible for a set number of people but would not necessarily have to take them in.
Countries unwilling to receive irregular migrants and refugees arriving ad hoc to the EU could help their hosting peers through cash – around €20,000 per person – equipment or personnel.
The agreement would introduce a new expedited border procedure for those deemed unlikely to win asylum to prevent them from lingering inside the bloc for years.
Poland and Hungary – among the loudest voices against accepting sea immigrants – opposed the deal, saying the bloc’s national leaders should return to the matter when they meet later in June.
That, however, did not scupper the majority deal.
Liberal critics of the agreement said the rapid border procedure risked reviving tragic scenes that played out on the Greek islands several years ago by creating even more overcrowded and inadequate migration camps on the EU periphery. (source Reuters)