The Commission’s new Pact on Migration and Asylum is designed to end overcrowded refugee camps such as Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was recently devastated by a fire.
The Pact also aims to strengthen control of Europe’s external borders, with new plans to screen all migrants and fast track those unlikely to get asylum.
It aims to crack down on human trafficking and there will also be increased support for countries of origin and transit.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the plan, which crucially still needs to be approved by all 27 Member States, strikes a “fair balance between responsibility and solidarity” among Member States, adding, “It is not a question of whether Member States should support with solidarity and contributions, but how they should support.”
The huge influx of migrants has created bottlenecks in hotspots like Greece and the recent fire at the overcrowded Moria camp - which had a capacity of 3,000 but housed more than 12,000 migrants - further highlighted such issues.
Germany has agreed to welcome more than 1,500 of the migrants from the camp but other countries are taking in far fewer, or none.
“It is not a question of whether Member States should support with solidarity and contributions, but how they should support” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
The Pact effectively replaces the Dublin regulation, which makes the EU country in which an asylum seeker first arrives responsible for his or her claim.
Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life, said the Moria fire was a “stark reminder that the clock has run out on how long we can live in a house half-built. The time has come to rally around a common, European migration policy.”
“The Pact provides the missing pieces of the puzzle for a comprehensive approach to migration. No one Member State experiences migration in the same way and the different and unique challenges faced by all deserve to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed.”
Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs, explained, “What we are proposing will build a long-term migration policy that can translate European values into practical management. This set of proposals will mean clear, fair and faster border procedures, so that people do not have to wait in limbo.”
“It means enhanced cooperation with third countries for fast returns, more legal pathways and strong actions to fight human smugglers. Fundamentally it protects the right to seek asylum.”
German interior minister Horst Seehofer, whose country is the current holder of the EU presidency and which must try to reach agreement among Member States on the Pact, said that despite current disagreement he aims for a political agreement by the end of December.
“No one Member State experiences migration in the same way and the different and unique challenges faced by all deserve to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed” Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the Pact “is an important step towards a truly EU migration policy” but Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said, “So many states will reject this. It will not work.”
The Pact was outlined to MEPs on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee on Thursday.
They were told the Pact on Migration and Asylum includes mandatory rules for sharing the migration burden by requiring Member States to take more migrants from “frontline” countries such as Italy and Greece.
Reaction from MEPs was swift, with Maltese member Roberta Metsola, EPP spokeswoman on the LIBE Committee, saying,” We must act collectively, determinedly and urgently.”
She called on Member States to “seize the opportunity to share responsibility fairly and show meaningful solidarity.”
“These wide-ranging migration reforms are a good starting point for a European approach to ensuring strong borders, fair and swift asylum procedures, an efficient and safe return of those not eligible for protection, and a sustainable system to be better prepared to handle a crisis”, said Metsola, whose country has been at the forefront of the migration crisis.
“It has been clear for a long time that the EU’s approach to migration and asylum is not fit for purpose. The EU has been dragging its feet for too long, unable to bring solutions, when we all know that only common approaches will be up to the challenge” Dacian Cioloş, Renew Europe leader
S&D MEPs, however, said they have “concerns” about the “lack of a permanent mandatory relocation mechanism in the new proposals to ensure that all Member States take their fair share of responsibility.”
Dutch Socialist Kati Piri, her group’s spokesman on migration, added, “We are glad to see proposals for a new pact for migration finally on the table and it is very important that the right to asylum in Europe and individual assessments remain in place.”
“For years, governments have blocked much-needed reforms which have resulted in too many ad hoc solutions. However, the horrific events in Moria in recent weeks made new sustainable proposals even more urgent.”
Renew Europe leader Dacian Cioloş, a Romanian deputy, said the pact is “not a moment too early”, adding, “It has been clear for a long time that the EU’s approach to migration and asylum is not fit for purpose. The EU has been dragging its feet for too long, unable to bring solutions, when we all know that only common approaches will be up to the challenge.”
“We need to build a truly European asylum and migration system that is based on EU values, solidarity and rule of law.”
He added, “The package is a basis to build on which we welcome. It is time to get down to work - we ask the Council to join us and now commit to make real progress.”
“For years, governments have blocked much-needed reforms which have resulted in too many ad hoc solutions. However, the horrific events in Moria in recent weeks made new sustainable proposals even more urgent” Kati Piri MEP
Elsewhere, Italian member Nicola Procaccini, ECR coordinator on the LIBE Committee, said, “It’s true that each Member State faces different and unique challenges, so their interests have to be recognised.”
“We agree we need a strongly reinforced focus on returns. Only if we are able to turn back those without a valid reason to stay, will our citizens support helping refugees that really have nowhere else to go. We also agree with the need for further reinforcement of controls at the EU's external borders.”
But the GUE/NGL group was highly critical and said the pact “renounces the EU’s international obligation to uphold the rights of people in need.”
German GUE/NGL deputy Cornelia Ernst claims the proposal “runs contrary to the letter and spirit” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“By putting joint returns at the core of the new policy, the Commission has turned the whole idea of solidarity on its head,” she declared.
The Greens, meanwhile, are also critical, saying the pact “does not take into account” Parliament’s position on reform of the Dublin system and a “fair distribution” of refugees.
Dutch Greens MEP Tineke Strik, her group’s coordinator in the LIBE Committee, also warned, “The Pact won't stop another Moria, despite promises to Parliament last week. The EU must end the systematic suffering at its borders but this plan doesn't do that.”
“Member States need to share responsibility for asylum through relocation and show solidarity with both refugees and border countries.”
In a statement, the German refugee rescue organisation Sea Watch went even further, saying, “To claim the pact is about solidarity is a farce. For people seeking protection in Europe, it is nothing but another catastrophe. They say it serves the protection of human rights, but the real goal is the isolation of Europe. This Europe kills.”
Christos Christou, international president of another rights NGO, Doctors Without Borders, said, “We will believe in a fresh start when we stop having to treat so many people who are suffering unnecessarily.”
Meanwhile, the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR) said the pact offers a “solidarity-based approach” with its President Vasco Cordeiro adding, “The present EU asylum and immigration system - or the lack thereof - has clearly demonstrated its limits and flaws, with dramatic consequences, the most recent of which being the devastating fire in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.”
“It is time for a true reform that also takes into account the role of regions in all areas in which they have formal competences or where their action is needed or can provide added value in achieving EU and national objectives.”