EU leaders seek unity on refugee plans
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders wrapped up a summit early on Thursday that was expected to back offers of aid to Syrian refugees and also ease bitter divisions over the migration crisis.
Leaders will announce the results of the discussions shortly.
Gathered a day after their interior ministers overruled furious objections from four eastern states in a vote that will distribute asylum seekers across the bloc according to mandatory national quotas, government leaders attempted to focus on ways to curb the influx of migrants which has reached record highs this summer.
Sentiments were high as chaotic crowds and varied responses from national capitals saw borders close inside Europe’s beloved passport-free Schengen zone. Many leaders are under pressure to bolster their national support by emphasizing the defense of their own national interests.
“Today…a concrete plan must finally emerge instead of the arguments and chaos we have witnessed in recent weeks,” European Council President Donald Tusk said before chairing the first EU summit of 28 leaders in three months.
Shortly before dinner on Wednesday, they chatted for nearly seven hours in what some diplomats said was a relatively cordial atmosphere given recent tensions.
“Very good talks…today,” Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas tweeted. “Some early stage developments, but the EU has come together to find a common European solution.”
On a day when the Greek island of Lesbos saw 2,500 people disembark in dozens of dinghies from Turkey, Tusk said arrivals which already top half a million this year were likely to increase and Europe must “take back control of our external borders” or risk destroying the Schengen system and “the European spirit”.
It includes an agreement on increased aid to refugees remaining in the Middle East, via funds for UN agencies, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and others. “Frontline” states like Greece and Italy should also get help at their borders – including registering new arrivals and deporting those who don’t qualify for asylum.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accused by some of her neighbors of fueling the influx of migrants by announcing last month that Germany would welcome more Syrians, stressed upon her arrival that it was time for Europeans to work together .
“Faced with a big challenge, it’s impossible for Europe to say ‘We can’t handle this,'” Merkel said.
“That’s why I say again and again: we can do it.”
ITALY AND GREECE IN POINT OF VIEW
Re-elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have heard calls from the north to use new EU support – both money and manpower – to tighten border controls block Mediterranean.
Establishing a principle of ‘relocation’ of some asylum seekers has been a key demand from Rome in particular, which wants to end a rule that they must stay in the first EU state in which they enter. Northern countries accuse Italy and Greece of undermining the Schengen area by simply letting migrants move around unchecked.
Renzi said a pattern of EU-managed relocations and deportations and EU-funded border forces meant Rome’s partners had finally agreed to demands it had been making for years to spread the burden of the arrivals of migrants from Africa on the islands of southern Italy.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vigorously defended the barbed wire fence he erected to keep migrants out; he insisted he was just following EU rules and said if Greece could not defend its borders, Athens should ask for help.
During a visit to Germany earlier in the day, Orban accused Berlin of “moral imperialism” for encouraging Syrian refugees to try to reach the German border. But in Brussels he said he would not criticize Germany, which he hailed as a valuable partner.
Orban’s Slovak ally, Prime Minister Robert Fico, said he would challenge in EU courts Tuesday’s rare majority decision to impose quotas on states to take in up to 120,000 applicants. asylum, mainly from Italy and Greece.
“We refused this nonsense from the start, and as a sovereign country we have the right to sue,” Fico said.
However, many leaders and EU officials hosting the summit – who will not take formal legal decisions – are keen to put the dispute over “relocation” behind them for now.
Collectively, national leaders can be reprimanded by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s director-general, whose Commission has named 19 countries for violating EU asylum laws: “One of the reasons why the asylum system ‘asylum… doesn’t work, it’s because member states don’t apply it,’ said Juncker’s deputy, Frans Timmermans.
Turkey, locked in a long love-hate relationship with Europe and through which the bulk of summer migrants reached Greece, could hear pledges of up to 2 billion euros to help build schools and ensure the well-being of the 2 million Syrians it has welcomed since the civil war.
Johannes Hahn, who looks after EU neighbors as a member of the Executive Commission, said on Wednesday that a trust fund set up to help Syrian refugees in the region, including in Jordan and Lebanon, could reach €1 billion on a combination of pledges from the EU and Member States.
The Commission, among proposals adopted at its weekly meeting on Wednesday, also called on them to reverse cuts to their funding for the World Food Programme.
Overall, Juncker said, the EU had doubled funds targeted to deal with migration to 9.5 billion euros ($10.6 billion).
Noting plans to set up “hotspots” on the Mediterranean where seconded EU officials will document arrivals and attempt to expedite the deportation of those who do not qualify for refugee status, the first Commission Vice-President Timmermans said:
“The most urgent thing we need to do is make sure we can fingerprint and register everyone who arrives so that we can distinguish between those who potentially have asylum and migrants who don’t. have not”.
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Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Robin Emmott, Francesco Guarascio, Andreas Rinke, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Tom Koerkemeier; Written by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Tom Heneghan/Mark Heinrich
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