EU compromise on migrants 'very hard': Tusk

Brussels (AFP) –


European leaders will find it "very hard" to reach a compromise in talks on a new policy for admitting refugees by a June deadline, EU President Donald Tusk said at a summit Friday.

Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker nonetheless tried to defuse a row that had even divided them when they opened talks with the bloc's 28 leaders on Thursday.

"Mandatory quotas remain a contentious issue although its temperature has decreased substantially," Tusk told a press conference ending the last European Union summit of 2017.

"Will a compromise be possible? It appears very hard," the former Polish premier said.

During two hours of debate Thursday night, the leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all stood firm against refugee quotas, participants said.

Eastern states have been opposed ever since other EU states adopted by majority the quotas in 2015 as a form of solidarity with frontline states Greece and Italy.

Under the plan, asylum seekers are relocated to other members of the bloc in a temporary exception to the so-called Dublin rules, which requires countries where they first land to process them.

"The discussion was fierce because the differences of opinion are still wide," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said when the dinner talks ended early Friday.

"There's no solution on how to find a consensus on the quotas," Rutte added.

The stubborn divide contrasts with broad agreement among the leaders to contribute to shoring up Europe's external borders through cooperation deals with third countries like Turkey and Libya.

Backed by the leaders of France and other countries, German Chancellor Angela said member states cannot be "selective" when it comes to solidarity.

"Here we still have a lot of work to do. The points of view did not change. But there is a clear task to continue working until June next year," Merkel said.

- 'Shameful' -

However, Merkel's 2015 decision to open the doors to one million asylum seekers infuriated a number of European leaders, particularly Hungary's Viktor Orban.

It was seen as drawing even more migrants to Europe, which was facing its worst such crisis since World War II, with people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

The EU has since stalled on plans for a permanent mechanism for future crises amid the opposition from the eastern countries -- three of which are already facing EU legal action over their refusal to admit any refugees.

Before the summit started, the four eastern leaders offered a financial contribution of 35 million euros ($30 million) to bolster external borders.

However, Rutte, backed by many leaders, said member states cannot use the EU as a place to shop for what they want and ignore what they don't.

"What Orban is doing is shameful," Rutte exclaimed.

Orban has led eastern opposition to refugees and migrants, saying the region will not be able to integrate them and it will face a security threat, particularly from Muslims.

But EU officials said countries have a "window" to try to bridge the gap over burden sharing with the easing of the migrant crisis.

- Arrivals down -

Italy and Greece have seen sharp declines in arrivals as a result of EU financial and other cooperation with Libya and Turkey, but they fear future crises.

The June deadline for asylum reform will also come as the summer weather brings an upsurge in Mediterranean boat crossings.

In the final press conference, Juncker sought to defuse the row when he said he had known Tusk "for centuries" and he was certainly not anti-European.

Tusk sparked the row when he appeared to support the eastern countries, saying in a pre-summit letter that a mandatory quota scheme for relocating refugees from frontline states was "ineffective" and "highly divisive".

Juncker's European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, which first pushed the quota system, shot back that the scheme was effective.

It said 32,000 people relocated under the plan, or 90 percent of those eligible. The scheme was originally meant to relocate 160,000 refugees.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos was even harsher, calling Tusk's stance "unacceptable" and "anti-European".

Juncker said: "Avramopoulos is a good commissioner and this was really a misunderstanding."

With divisions on asylum reform still high, Rutte said member states will probably have no choice but to adopt rules by majority rather than by consensus.