By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — EU home affairs ministers reached a migration deal described as historic by officials that would see EU states pay €20,000 for each migrant they refuse to host.
Swedish immigration minister Maria Malmer Stenergard, who chaired the talks in Luxembourg on Thursday (8 June), described the majority agreement as a “historic step” that could unblock years of bitter disputes over the bloc’s immigration and asylum rules.
“I didn’t really believe I would be sitting here saying this … but we have adopted general approaches on the asylum and migration management regulation and asylum procedure regulation,” said Malmer Stenergard.
The agreement marked a “historic decision on two very difficult and sensitive files,” said the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johannson, adding that the process had been “a marathon”.
The agreement was reached after demands for ‘mandatory relocation’ of migrants from frontline countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta were abandoned in favour of a €20,000 financial contribution for each migrant that a member state says it cannot host.
The payments will go into a common EU fund – managed by the Commission – to finance projects aimed at addressing the root causes of migration, said EU officials.
Migration policy had been “seen as a toxic topic”, the Commissioner told reporters in a press conference on Thursday night.
”We have made huge progress in rebuilding trust,” she said, adding that “today proves that there is trust and solidarity between member states.”
The agreement among ministers does not mean that the two files are a done deal. MEPs in the European Parliament are still demanding mandatory relocation. Johansson said she was “convinced” that a compromise could be brokered with MEPs noting that “it’s not the first time that EP and Council don’t agree.”
However, the compromise did not obtain unanimous support. At the start of the meeting, Polish minister, Bartosz Grodecki, stated that his government would refuse to pay EU “fines” for not taking people.
“Politically, pragmatically, this mechanism is unacceptable to us,” he said.
Poland has hosted more than one million refugees who fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion last February.
However, only Hungary, arguably the EU government with the strongest anti-migrant stance, joined Poland in opposing the agreement, leaving what Stenergard described to journalists as “a very solid qualified majority”.
A new system for the redistribution of migrants that will set effective quotas on how many people frontline states have to process before asking for help will also be established.
Governments will also be required to process migrant claims within six months, compared to the 15-month timeline that was initially proposed.
Elsewhere, ministers agreed to give national governments the right to decide – rather than agree common EU rules – on the definition of a ‘safe’ country to which failed asylum seekers and economic migrants can be returned. They will be required to show a ‘connection’ with the return country, but diplomats indicated that this could allow the likes of Italy, whose nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has put migration control at the top of her agenda, to transfer migrants to Tunisia and other North African countries.
“Today is a day where something is beginning. We are not arriving; we are setting off,” said Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi.
However, Germany was among a group of EU states that had hoped for the bloc to show more ambition and Berlin’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock did little to hide her disappointment.
The deal “creates a perspective to end the unspeakable suffering at the EU’s external borders,” said Baerbock in a statement.
“Honesty requires that if we as the Federal Government had been able to pass the reform on our own, it would have looked different,” she added.
“The bitter part of the compromise is the border procedures at the external border for people from countries with a low recognition rate. Without these border procedures, however, no one but Germany would have participated in the distribution mechanism,” said Baerbock.
The German foreign minister added that voting against the compromise would have meant that “a common European asylum policy based on solidarity would be dead for years. And instead, all those who want to raise national walls in Europe again anyway would have a free pass.”
Plans to overhaul the EU’s asylum rules broke down in 2015 after more than a million people – mostly fleeing the civil war in Syria – reached the bloc across the Mediterranean.