The European Union’s long-stalled efforts to reform its asylum policy achieved a small breakthrough on Friday when France said “a large majority” of member states backed a migrant relocation plan.
The “voluntary solidarity mechanism” put forward by France in the final weeks of its six month EU presidency calls for willing EU countries to take in asylum-seekers from those on the bloc’s southern periphery.
Those unwilling to take in migrants — including several on the EU’s eastern rim — but still agreeing to the scheme would pay a financial contribution instead.
The aim, according to several European diplomats, is to shift 10,000 asylum seekers from frontline states such as Greece, Italy and Malta to other EU countries in the first year. If the trial works, it can be renewed on an annual basis.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who presented the plan to EU Home Affairs ministers in Luxembourg, told journalists that “more than a dozen countries have committed to put in place relocation mechanisms”.
They include France, Germany and Luxembourg. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Bulgaria and Romania were also on board, adding that “only two or three countries came out against it” in the meeting.
Darmanin said a “solidarity platform” would meet in coming days to work out details of the plan, which remains a nonbinding text to which EU countries can opt out of.
The Netherlands and Belgium have said they will not be taking in asylum-seekers under the scheme, though diplomats said they might contribute in other ways.
Austria expressed hostility to the idea before the ministers’ meeting, saying the proposal would send a “wrong signal to people-smugglers”.
Other countries such as Hungary and Poland have long resisted any compulsory migrant relocation scheme.
The EU commissioner for migration, Ylva Johansson, said she saw the step as an important move after spending many months trying and failing to persuade member states to adopt a broader asylum reform proposal the Commission unveiled in September 2020.
“We can conclude that this has been an extremely successful council meeting,” she said.
The plan comes at a time that Europe is hosting more than four million Ukrainian refugees, who do not come under the EU asylum rules that are applied to other nationalities such as Syrians and Afghans.
The French plan stresses that the identification of asylum-seekers entering the bloc has been enhanced with enlarged use of Eurodac, a biometric database, and a new entry filtering system.
It also aims to minimise so-called secondary movements, where asylum-seekers move on from the country where they are processed to another, often wealthier EU state, such as Germany or France.