The Commission is weighing plans to expand the refugees quota by a factor of four, in order to oblige states to take in 160,000 from Italy, Greece and Hungary, as hundreds of thousands flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia toward Europe.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who in May proposed a binding set of quotas for states to take in 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, will on Wednesday 9 September, during his first State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, propose nearly trebling that figure, adding almost 50,000 from Hungary.
National leaders rejected the imposition of quotas from Brussels but their efforts to reach the 40,000 target by means of voluntary offers failed to exceed 32,000, even as the numbers arriving in Italy, Greece and increasingly Hungary have soared far into the hundreds of thousands, levels not seen since 1992.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande gave their backing on Thursday to exactly the kind of scheme that EU leaders rejected in June.
In a move that could soften resistance among ex-Communist EU states which say they lack their western neighbors’ familiarity with mass immigration from outside Europe, one EU official told Reuters that countries could be given an option to pay for others to house migrants if they did not take them themselves.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, visiting Brussels, insisted he would not take large numbers of Muslims and called such quotas an “invitation” to millions more to risk the journey to Europe. Slovakia says it, too, prefers Christian refugees.
Merkel, whose government has said it expects to log 800,000 asylum claims this year, renewed her call deal with the refugee crisis with “fairness and solidarity” and said Germany was ready to take on more that others, given its size and robust economy.
Hollande, whose government spoke out against Juncker’s quota proposals in June, also made clear that France has now thrown its weight behind the idea of obliging other EU states to help the frontier states deal with large numbers of asylum-seekers.
With Britain staying on the sidelines of the debate as a result of its long-standing opt-out from the EU asylum and migration system, and with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi strongly in favour of the relocation plans, eastern states have found themselves facing an increasingly united western bloc.
The leaders of four ex-Communist central European states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, met in Prague on Friday to debate their approach. During a visit to Brussels, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he would consider relocation quotas, if one were offered that helped Budapest.
After meeting Juncker, he said he had not heard any offer to relocate perhaps over 50,000 asylum-seekers from Hungary but said: “We would be ready to consider proposals to take refugees away from Hungary. But we haven’t seen any yet.”
Orban told news conference when asked about Friday’s talks in Prague: “There is a different approach to all these issues, of the western countries and central European countries … It’s not good, so we would like to cooperate and find common words.”
On Friday, Greece’s coast guard rescued hundreds more refugees and migrants from the sea near the eastern Aegean islands, a daily occurrence by now.
The coast guard said it picked up 535 people in 12 incidents off the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Agathonissi, Kalolymnos and Kos from Thursday morning to Friday morning. That doesn’t include hundreds who make it to the islands from the nearby Turkish coast themselves.
Greece’s eastern islands have been overwhelmed by the massive influx, and ferry tickets to the mainland have been scarce during the tourist season. Scuffles broke out with police at Lesbos port Friday when about 1,000 people tried to rush onto a ferry to Piraeus, local media reported.
Also on Friday, European Commissioners Timmermans and Avramopoulos visited the Greek island of Kos, “the place where Europe begins”, as Timmermans put it, from where they urged member states “not to take leave from the European values”.
On its side, Amnesty International released a communique denouncing a string of attacks on refugees, who “live in ‘hellish conditions’ on Kos”.