The European Commission proposed a quota system for dispersing political refugees across the continent, responding to the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea that have cost the lives of hundreds fleeing oppression and poverty.
“We have to show more solidarity,” commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a video on Wednesday in Brussels. “We will put in place a system of quotas that makes it easier, in an equitable and mutually supportive way, to allocate refugees who ask for and are entitled to asylum.”
National governments took mixed positions on the latest effort to forge a common asylum policy, with southern European countries keen to obtain relief from the refugee influx, eastern countries fearing extra burdens and Britain shunning the quota regime entirely. The proposal applies to asylum seekers fleeing crisis zones and not to other migrants.
Syria’s civil war, the dissolution of Libya and turmoil elsewhere in northern Africa have pushed migration to Europe to levels not seen since the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War and breakup of Yugoslavia. European Union governments sheltered 185,000 asylum seekers in 2014, an increase of almost 50 percent from 2013.
“Solidarity among EU member states in the approach is the only way that a problem of this nature can be tackled,” said Volker Turk, the UN Refugee Agency’s chief of protection.
The biggest numbers went to Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and Britain, straining social systems and, in many places, fueling the rise of anti-foreigner movements. To head off one such challenge, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron made curbs on immigration a key plank of his successful bid for re-election.
With an eye to the surge in anti-immigration populism, Frans Timmermans, commission vice president, emphasized that Europe won’t fling its doors open to all comers. “It is time for us to apply the existing rules properly,” he said, noting that many asylum seekers don’t qualify.
Two categories of quotas would be set up to deal with the current wave of refugees: one to “relocate” migrants that have made it onto European shores, the other to “resettle” a pool of 20,000 potential refugees en route to the continent.
Officials began totting up the winners and losers under the quotas, which are based on each country’s population, economic size and asylum trends. Germany, for example, would take 18 percent of new refugees, down from its 35 percent share of asylum bidders in 2014; Poland, with few asylum applicants in recent years, would be required to take 5 percent.
Germany wants “a fair distribution of refugees,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin. He called the proposal “an important contribution.”
The commission, which manages the 28-nation EU’s daily business, will provide an additional 89 million euros ($100 million) in 2015 to manage the inflows, strengthen sea rescue operations, and set up advisory and reception centers in places like Niger and Mali. The proposals require approval by national governments and the European Parliament.
Britain will use its rights under EU treaties to escape the quotas, Home Secretary Theresa May said. Britain put the focus on breaking up people-smuggling rings that are shunting refugees through Libya, then onto rickety vessels for the Mediterranean journey.
“We should use military, intelligence and crime-fighting assets not only to deliver search and rescue mechanisms, but also to crack down on the traffickers who are putting people at risk,” May said in a Times op-ed published Wednesday. Denmark and Ireland would also be exempt.
In the worst of many catastrophes at sea, a refugee boat capsized off the Libyan coast last month, drowning at least 700 people. EU governments are working on a military response, with approval slated on May 18 for a naval and air force mission to monitor the Libyan coast and map smuggling routes.
Steps beyond intelligence gathering such as a military intervention to intercept refugee boats on the high seas or seize and destroy them in Libyan waters would require a United Nations Security Council resolution, currently held up by Russia. The EU goal is for a UN resolution by mid-June.
“We are not planning in any possible way a military intervention in Libya,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters. She spoke of a planned “naval operation to dismantle the business model of the criminal organizations that are smuggling and trafficking people.”