EU Urged to House 160,000 Refugees in ‘High Time to Act’

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Refugees to Dominate Juncker's State of Union

European Union governments were called on to take in 160,000 refugees from wars and civil strife in northern Africa and the Middle East, in a test of the EU’s political and social cohesion.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged the bloc’s 28 governments to share the burdens -- financial, political and moral -- of resettling asylum seekers who hazard the journey across the Mediterranean Sea to enter the EU predominantly through Greece, Italy and Hungary.

Juncker built on proposals that have languished since May, as national leaders sparred over how to respond to the unprecedented flow of mostly Muslim refugees to the continent at a time of lackluster economic recovery in Europe.

“There has been a lot of finger pointing,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday. He called it “high time to act” and predicted that national leaders will fall into line behind the new scheme “because there is no alternative.”

Migration has supplanted the debt crisis as Europe’s most divisive issue, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban building a fence to keep people out and German Chancellor Angela Merkel opening the doors to refugees while pressing for an equitable distribution.

Merkel Mask

Germany took in 218,000 in the first seven months and, amid last week’s scenes of migrants heading westward on foot from Budapest’s jammed train station, expects as many as 800,000 for the full year. While budgeting extra money to shelter and integrate certified political refugees, Merkel has backed a Europe-wide relocation system to ease the strains on Germany and called for hastier deportation of “economic” migrants.

“Many will become new citizens of our country,” Merkel told lawmakers in Berlin on Wednesday. “Those who come to us for economic reasons and not asylum will not be able to stay.”

Admired and scorned in different parts of Europe for her dominance in the debt crisis, the German chancellor made a ghost appearance in the Strasbourg debate when one member donned a Merkel mask and descended to the floor to shake Juncker’s hand. “You’ve had your show, now sit down,” the parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, said.

Land Route

Economically hobbled Greece has been the first port of call for 200,000 refugees this year, followed by Hungary with 150,000 and Italy with 120,000. Last year and into 2015, Libya was a prime embarkation point for migrants, with thousands loaded by human traffickers onto rickety boats -- and hundreds drowning -- en route to Italy or Greece. Now many are taking the land route through Turkey, across the sea to Greek islands and on through the Balkans to Hungary.

European governments have only partially assented to proposals from May to relocate 40,000 refugees. Juncker added another 120,000 Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans to that tally, with the allocation over two years based on each country’s size and economic heft. Germany would take the most, 31,443, and Malta the fewest, 133. The only exceptions would be Britain, Ireland and Denmark, which have legal exemptions from EU migration policies.

The new proposals stirred up the campaign for next month’s parliamentary election in Poland, the largest eastern country. While Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz indicated a willingness to go along, quotas were rejected by the opposition, which has held a consistent lead in opinion polls.

Czech Objections

Romania balked at the size of its allotment, and the Czech Republic objected to quotas on principle, saying they would serve as a beacon to all comers. Hungary echoed that logic, even though it would benefit from the EU-backed resettlement of refugees streaming across its border with Serbia.

With most western European countries in favor, Hungary and its immediate neighbors wouldn’t have the votes to block the proposals. Under the EU’s complex decision-making system, opponents would have to recruit at least Poland or Finland to their cause to stand a chance of heading off the quotas.

The commission proposed a loophole for the opponents, giving them the possible alternative of paying a sum equal to 0.002 percent of gross domestic product. However, Frans Timmermans, commission vice president, said that option would only be granted when a government is “in dire trouble because of a natural catastrophe.”

EU justice and interior ministers will have a first look at the proposals on Sept. 14. Some politicians have called for that meeting to be followed by a leaders’ summit, which would be the third top-level negotiating session on the refugee influx since April.

To separate people fleeing war and civil disorder from what are dubbed “economic” migrants, the commission proposed labeling Turkey and the western Balkans as “safe” and free of political persecution. That would make it easier to deport people from those countries who claim political asylum.

The commission also promised steps to reinforce the bloc’s external borders, while insisting that passport-free travel between most countries in the EU is untouchable.

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