The EU is trying to put a price tag on rejecting migrants as a creative — and controversial — solution to unblock the multiplying disagreements threatening to derail Europe’s chance to reform how it welcomes asylum seekers.
For months, officials have been locked in tense negotiations to find a formula that would ensure the tens of thousands of people seeking protection in Europe are more evenly distributed across the EU’s 27 countries.
Such a prospect, however, is loathed in countries such as Poland and Hungary, which have always opposed any set quotes for accepting migrants. As a workaround, diplomats have privately discussed a very capitalist solution: Countries could simply pay to opt out of the relocation program.
Negotiators are haggling over a per-migrant fee — somewhere between €10,000 and €22,000, according to numerous people involved — to charge a country if it declines to take in asylum seekers. Another option would let the country instead give material support, extra assistance on the ground, for instance, to those willing to accept newly arrived migrants.
The proposal has run into problems already with Poland and diplomats from Europe’s eastern half venting about the payments.
Meanwhile, many dug-in fights over migration policy are unresolved days before diplomats hoped to clinch the long-in-the-works pact. Southern countries are haggling over how many asylum seekers they can redistribute north and east, while those regions are pressing their southern neighbors to do more to prevent migrants from relocating without permission within the EU.
It means the process is at risk of falling apart or facing further delays, raising the prospect that the EU could, once again, fail at solving one of its most vexing challenges.
“If the Council fails to grab the momentum, a common policy will disappear over the horizon, possibly for good, leaving us with the chaotic status quo that is not working for anyone,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch European Parliament member with the centrist Renew Europe group.
The moment of truth
Migration discussions are set to dominate the upcoming week in Brussels. The Council is aiming to wrap up its own negotiations by Wednesday before handing its work off to government ministers overseeing migration. They are set to convene in Brussels for a meeting on Thursday.
If negotiators can’t reach a deal by then, government ministers may reconvene later this month for a special meeting, said two diplomats familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks. POLITICO spoke to a number of other diplomats who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The fault lines that remain are complex and overlapping, and don’t break down easily across traditional geographic or ideological lines.
At a basic level, officials are trying to address the rise in asylum seekers who are mostly arriving in the EU along the shores of southern European countries such as Italy and Greece. Their goal: Ensure these asylum seekers are processed and settled more evenly across Europe while making it easier to return people whose applications are rejected.
In the first four months of the year, over 80,000 migrants arrived in the EU without going through an official point of entry, a 30 percent jump from the same period in 2022, which is a high not seen since the 2016 surge of migration into Europe.
Because of a long-standing rule, the first country that receives these migrants is legally required to process their asylum applications and is responsible for the individuals.
That means newly arriving asylum seekers are settling disproportionately along Europe’s borders, or later moving without official permission within the EU to another country to seek work elsewhere. Numerous EU border countries have faced persistent and well-documented allegations of “pushbacks,” the illegal practice of simply rejecting asylum seekers as they arrive.
Attempts to create an EU-wide system to receive and distribute asylum seekers have repeatedly run aground in recent years, often over any indication that countries might be legally required to take in a set number of people.
The solution being proposed is dubbed “mandatory solidarity.” All EU countries would be forced to either accept a certain number of asylum seekers or pay financial compensation, which could also include material assistance — allowing an out for countries that oppose mandatory quotas.
“No Member State will ever be obliged to carry out relocations,” insists a recent draft of the proposal, seen by POLITICO, which Sweden circulated in late May as part of its role helming the Council’s rotating presidency.
The figures being floated range between €10,000 and €22,000, according to numerous diplomats involved in the talks. Countries like Austria and Slovakia are pushing for the lower figure, based on studies indicating that sum is the average cost to process and accommodate an asylum seeker for one year. The Swedish presidency has floated the higher figure, other diplomats said.
Yet the approach has not assuaged everyone. Poland, which has already taken in 1 million Ukrainians fleeing the war, is still questioning why it should have to pay even more to stop other migrants from being resettled there. Eastern European countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also questioned the €22,000 figure.
Even Italy, which has made migrant relocation a priority under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is not yet on board. Rome fears the deal won’t actually help it send migrants elsewhere, leaving its officials to handle the asylum process without a clear route for returning those whose applications aren’t approved.
Officials have not settled on key figures, including how many asylum seekers countries must take in or pay for annually, and how many asylum seekers a country must process before it can claim it is at “capacity.”
According to two diplomats, the current discussion aims to relocate 30,000 migrants annually across the EU.
Another tense discussion is how to handle minors upon arrival, given that processing asylum seekers often involves detentions. Thus far, the door is left open.
“Families with children of 12 years of age or younger,” the recent proposal says, “should not be automatically exempted from the border procedure” — a euphemism for detention.
That might be a deal-breaker for Germany, which is seeking explicit exceptions for minors.
If both Rome and Berlin withhold support, diplomats said, the deal is basically dead at this stage.
Will it even work?
Given the months and months of talks and compromises, migration specialists are unsure exactly what effect reaching a deal might have on Europe’s asylum system.
In recent weeks, as the proposal has been tweaked, retweaked and tweaked again, it has grown more convoluted and unwieldy, even for those involved in the process.
Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, said the potential new framework could nonetheless make it easier to manage Europe’s asylum seekers.
“Higher numbers of those people arriving will have their cases processed,” she said.
But that might also mean more detention centers throughout Europe, Woollard noted. And, historically, Woollard noted, that runs “the risk of angering [the] local population.”
That anger could put pressure on local governments, leading to more “pushbacks,” Woollard said.
Yet given how gnarled the text has become, it’s simply hard to know what might happen.
“This has become this sort of absurdist unworkable, absurdist construction,” Woolard said. “You have the rules, and then you have exemptions to the rules, and then you have offsets to the responsibilities.”
Woollard conceded she was struggling to sum it up.
“I was trying to search for a word,” she said. “And the only one that comes up: Byzantine.”
The post A price tag to reject migrants? It’s not the only fight threatening a reform package appeared first on Politico.