The European Council meeting on Thursday and Friday, 25 and 26 June, exposed divides between EU member states on asylum seeker distribution quotas. After a wrangle overshadowing other issues discussed during the two-day meeting, the conclusions proved foreseeable albeit no less unsettling. EU leaders agreed to disagree and defended their decision to back a non-binding quota system.
Negotiations spilled over from Thursday into the early hours of Friday and saw Italy pitted against other EU member states reluctant to share the burden. Italy, together with Greece, has been at the receiving end of the influx of migrants taking to the sea in the hope of reaching Europe. Since the start of the year, Italy has recorded 50,000 arrivals and the number of people making the perilous Mediterranean crossing in makeshift boats doesn’t seem to let up.
The heated dispute is rooted in the European Commission plan, part of the “European Agenda on Migration”, to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states. A quota system was devised so that every country, except those with automatic opt-outs, take in a pre-determined number of asylum seekers. The proposal to dismiss the Commission’s binding quota system was met with little shock. Though expected, it didn’t stop the meeting descending into name-calling between Italy and Lithuania. The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, said that her country had no intention to contribute to any solution. In response, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi prickly stated: “if this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it.”
The talks exposed acrimonious differences between countries receiving the biggest number of refugees and ex-communist states aware of the cost that relocation would entail. Poland was very much against the plan proposed by Brussels, opting instead for an open-ended approach on distributing asylum seekers. Bulgaria was also amongst the states exempted from the plan, while Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all strongly opposed the quota system.
What leaders did agree upon was coming up with a clearer language when establishing who is eligible for asylum and returning as many illegal migrants as possible to their countries of origin. But then there’s the issue of getting those countries to accept them back.
So far the agreement depends solely on the willingness of each member state to accept a share of the burden. A decision on this is expected to be reached by consensus by the end of July. How well that will work remains unknown, as member states continue to stand apart on the migrant crisis. Italy’s readiness to address the issue isn’t shared by fellow member states. Chief amongst them, France has recently closed its border with Italy to migrants, while Austria and Switzerland are also trying to keep asylum seekers from crossing into their territory.
Apart from dealing with a Middle Eastern and African influx, EU is also struggling to sort out the issue of internal migration or free movement. The less likely European leaders are to find a solution to both the more we see far-right parties rising to power with xenophobia soaring across the continent.