BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU governments began talks on Thursday on a proposed overhaul of migration rules to resolve years of bitter divisions as Germany, chairing the discussions, expressed optimism a deal might be possible by December.
The video-conference of EU interior ministers was the first chance to exchange views on the scheme proposed by the European Commission last month, and especially on its most sensitive part which de facto obliges each EU country to host some refugees.
The right-wing nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary are dead set against that, even though under the Commission proposal the EU would pay a country 10,000 euros ($11,750) per adult taken in.
“Our aim is that by the end of the year we reach political agreement covering the most important pillars of the package and under the Portuguese presidency the legal instruments would be put in place,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.
“We met with support among our ministerial colleagues. Today’s meeting gives me reason for optimism that we can succeed. The will is there, there is a strong will,” Seehofer told a news conference after the talks.
Portugal takes over the rotating presidency of the EU from Germany on Jan. 1 for a six-month period.
The EU’s reluctant eastern members, the affluent northern states where many of the newcomers aspire to live, and the Mediterranean-shore countries where they mainly arrive have been clashing over where to locate people since the 2015 migration crisis showed existing EU migration rules were inadequate.
In 2015, more than a million people made it to EU shores, overwhelming security and welfare networks, and stirring far-right sentiment. The EU now receives up to 1.5 million net new foreigners coming legally to live and work per year, and only 140,000 asylum seekers arrive illegally.
Under the Commission’s latest proposal, EU countries would be obliged to help each other under the new idea of “mandatory solidarity” by either accepting migrants, sponsoring their return to their countries of origin or offering material assistance on the ground in arrival countries.
But if an EU country were under major migration pressure, the Commission wants a crisis mechanism to oblige other EU governments to take people in or send them back.
If a migrant could not be sent back within eight months – which national migration experts and some EU officials admit is tight – the EU country in charge of the return process would be forced to take in the migrant. That is anathema to easterners.
Germany is keen to reach a deal among EU governments and institutions on the new migration regime by the end of the year, but the process might take longer.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Alison Williams and Mark Heinrich)