With Bulgaria taking its turn in the rotating presidency, Sofia hosted the first informal meeting of EU interior ministers to launch talks on one of the most contentious issues within the bloc – the overhaul of Europe’s system for granting asylum.
Plagued by profound disagreements over refugee reception rates and quotas, Thursday’s informal meeting of the Council of Interior Ministers have set June as a deadline to hammer out a re-worked migrant asylum agreement.
“The goal set by the heads of state and government is clear: we must have a political agreement by June,” said Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, adding that the main obstacle remains the debate on refugee quotas. “This will be difficult, and the issue of a fair distribution [of asylum seekers] is the most difficult,”
Ahead of the June deadline, the member states have to agree on a new regulation to determine which country is responsible for migrants that illegally cross EU borders.
The European Commission’s hopes that a re-worked migrant policy, that the EU member states will be better equipped to deal with a massive influx of refugees. Germany, Italy, and Greece may react positively to the new plan – as the three took the brunt of the more than 1.25 million people applied for asylum in the EU in 2015.
The Visegrad Group of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic are, however, almost certain to oppose the new plan.
Austria’s new Interior Minister, Herbert Kickl, hinted that he is not in favour of the planned overhaul if a decision on its core tenets is made without an explicit agreement between all of the member states.
“Quotas are not a good thing,” said the Slovak minister Robert Kalinak, who believes that “we need to come up with something else.”
The EU’s Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos insisted on Thursday that solidarity “cannot be interpreted differently”.
Avramopoulos steadfastly defended the existing quota policy that has allowed for the relocation of about 33,000 people and asked for a significant change in rhetoric. He also said that the ideological “gap” between Western Europe and former members of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc “belongs to the past”.
“Everyone is inspired by the European spirit that must prevail everywhere. We all belong to the same family. We must begin to think and act in the same way. This is Europe, and in this the way we must build our future,” said Avramopoulos.
“Our objective is for European citizens to perceive that the Bulgarian Presidency is steering the important topics in a good direction concerning better migration management, the reform of the common European asylum system, and border security,” said Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Valentin Radev.
The ministers also discussed on Thursday other border management issues, including a strategy to coordinate European border patrol agencies known as the Integrated Border Management concept.
The debate focused mainly on issues such as cooperation with third countries, increasing the number of returns of illegal non-EU nationals, and interagency cooperation in the context of border management.