BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker is preparing to defy national leaders over Europe’s migrant crisis with a new bid to force them to take in quotas of asylum-seekers - and four times as many of them than in a scheme they already rejected.
Senior EU officials, including Juncker’s deputy, confirmed various details on Friday of proposals the European Commission president plans to make next week in an annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament.
Among these is to re-submit for approval by the Council of member states a one-off scheme to share out some of the asylum-seekers crowded into the bloc’s frontier states among the rest, according to a set of national quotas - a “distribution key”.
In June, the 28 government leaders rejected that as a diktat from Brussels and said they would reach Juncker’s then target of 40,000 people through voluntary offers. Pledges, however, have reached only 32,000. And Juncker now plans to ask for 160,000.
The former Luxembourg prime minister has voiced his fury at nationalistic feuding, warning it could undermine the Union. His challenge to EU leaders, with whom he clashed at an ill-tempered summit in June, is a high-risk strategy, diplomats say.
The Commission proposes legislation but must win support for it from the Council of leaders. Juncker has allies in the parliament and could see his influence over the EU enhanced if he secures the migration deal he wants. But less than a year into his five-year mandate, he could be damaged by failure.
Interior ministers of the EU states will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Sept. 14 to discuss Juncker’s proposals.
His deputy, European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, said during a visit to the Greek island of Kos on Friday: ”President Juncker will announce an enhanced proposal for relocation next week, especially for the three most affected countries, Greece, Italy and Hungary.
“We will propose to member states to make sure that we have a distribution key so that European solidarity is put into practise to make sure the people who arrive in Europe are spread in the member states. The Commission will insist on that.”
He has rallied vital allies in German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, both of whom have spoken out in support of Juncker’s idea of sharing out the work of housing and assessing the asylum claims of people according to each country’s population, wealth, jobless rate and so on.
With British Prime Minister David Cameron on the sidelines of the debate due to London’s special opt-out on EU asylum issues, Juncker’s toughest opponents on quotas have been poorer, ex-communist states in the east, whose leaders say their societies cannot cope with an influx of mainly Muslim refugees.
The addition of Hungary to Juncker’s previous proposal to take asylum seekers from Italy and Greece both recognises that tens of thousands of migrants have surged into Hungary over the summer, hoping to reach Germany. But it also gives Hungary’s hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the most outspoken critic of quotas, an interest in supporting the new scheme - dividing the eastern leaders, four of whom met in Prague on Friday.
The Visegrad group - Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - issued a statement stressing the need to defend the EU’s borders, as Orban is doing with a razor-wire fence. But it is unclear if they can maintain a solid bloc opposed to a quota relocation system. Orban said after meeting Juncker on Thursday that he might consider it if it were formally offered to him.
EU officials say the enlarged scheme could relocate some 50,000 or so people from Hungary over the next two years, in addition to more than 100,000 from Italy and Greece.
Moreover, Merkel has made increasingly clear German concern about the lack of “solidarity” among other EU states at a time when Germany is expecting to take in 800,000 people this year.
Poland and other central European states which benefit from substantial EU subsidies are reluctant to alienate Berlin.
Among other proposals Juncker will make, EU officials said he would call for an agreed common list of “safe” countries whose citizens will face a fast-track procedure for deportation.
And he will put forward a permanent mechanism for relocating asylum-seekers whenever emergency levels are reached in any one state. In principle, each EU country is supposed to process the asylum claims of everyone who first arrives in the bloc on their territory. But frontline states have been unable to cope.
One element of that permanent mechanism could be an option for countries to opt out for a short period from taking in asylum seekers, an EU official said, and instead choose to make a “financial contribution” to handling those people elsewhere.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Gareth Jones