BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German’s Angela Merkel embarks this week on her third bold attempt to reshape European migration, but she faces an uphill task convincing other EU leaders to host refugees, even if her plan contains generous incentives.
Having taken in a million refugees in 2015 and struck a deal with Turkey to cut Mediterranean arrivals a year later, Merkel is the driving force behind a new European Union migration pact to be unveiled on Wednesday.
It seeks to share the task of accepting the hundreds and sometimes thousands of refugees arriving by boat every week – an idea that one EU official said Germany’s veteran chancellor is hoping will serve as a cornerstone of her political legacy.
But the same states that, five years ago, rejected an EU quota system for refugees from Syria’s war remain firmly opposed to accepting those who continue to flee conflict or poverty in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
“It’s a strong proposal in support of Angela Merkel’s call for EU solidarity. It’s Merkel’s legacy exercise,” the official said. “But it won’t fly.”
Asked about the official’s remarks, a German government spokesman said: “We will comment on the European Commission’s proposals once the Commission has published them.”
The plan would oblige each EU state to accept a number of refugees in return for 10,000 euros ($11,750) per adult taken in, funded from the bloc’s budget, according to officials and diplomats familiar with Wednesday’s policy blueprint.
Nations that fail to honour their commitments would face infringement proceedings in EU courts that could lead to hefty fines. But such penalties tend to take years to enforce.
The plan would also aim to step up returns – including by cracking down on visas for citizens of countries that refuse to take their nationals back – and support foreign states in managing migration before people reach Europe, among others.
The roughly 140,000 people who arrive in the EU seeking asylum each year represent a fraction of the 2 million who enter legally.
But Poland and Hungary, which have consistently objected to the principle of obligatory relocation, are likely to reject the proposal.
“We cannot accept the paradigm according to which solidarity is based on obligatory measures, including relocation,” Poland’s ambassador to the EU, Andrzej Sados, wrote on Monday in online newspaper Euractiv.
‘NORMALISING THE DEBATE’
Merkel, who has said she will not seek re-election as chancellor when Germany votes in 2021, has already overcome stiff opposition in the EU this year, persuading the bloc’s more frugal states to jointly borrow 750 billion euros for a pandemic recovery fund that includes non-repayable grants.
While the ink has yet to dry on that ground-breaking deal, she has the wind at her back diplomatically in Brussels and enjoys high domestic approval ratings, both on immigration and for her handling of the coronavirus crisis.
After opening Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees back in 2015, she suffered electoral setbacks as the far right surged on anti-immigration sentiment.
But in a sign of the changing mood, German mayors offered this month to take in refugees after an overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos burnt to the ground. Protesters took to the streets in many German cities chanting “We have space!”.
The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party is also drifting lower in opinion polls.
However, a clutch of EU states also including Austria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic remain either reluctant to endorse or firmly opposed to Merkel’s push for solidarity.
They say it would oblige them to host people who would harm the social fabric, burden state services and pose security risks.
That is one reason, officials say, why Merkel hesitated for a week before agreeing to take 1,500 of the 12,000 refugees made homeless by the Moria fire. In accepting them, she called on other EU members to also do their part.
So far, nine other EU states have agreed to accept 400 children from the camp.
“We have to normalise the debate about migration,” a second EU official said. “Whatever difficult steps there are to be taken, it’s easier to take them now, while the situation on the borders is not a crisis.”
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Alison Williams and John Stonestreet)