Brussels has outlined plans to overhaul Europe’s asylum rules, paving the way for a more centralised approach that shifts responsibility away from overwhelmed frontline states like Greece.
A long-awaited paper from the European Commission on Wednesday sets out reform options for the Dublin regulation, including one that rips up the principle that northern EU countries such as Britain can deport asylum seekers to their port of first entry.
The EU is moving to reinforce its borders and systems after they collapsed under the strain of 1.8m illegal border crossings last year, mainly by Germany-bound migrants entering through Greece.
Tighter controls through the western Balkans have led to a sharp drop in migrant flows over the past month, prompting Berlin to consider lifting border checks that it imposed last year when they expire in May.
But a big backlog of more than 50,000 cases has built up in Greece, a situation on the ground that the EU is still struggling to prove it can handle through a joint EU approach.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the commission, said: “The current system is not sustainable. Different national approaches have fuelled asylum shopping and irregular migration, while we have seen in the ongoing crisis that the Dublin rules have placed too much responsibility on just a few member states.”
Over the medium term, asylum reform is considered crucial to preserving passport-free travel in Europe, but it involves some potentially explosive political solutions, such as the imposition of mandatory refugee quotas or limits on the rights of countries to decide who is entitled to protection.
The paper is a first step before the commission draws up concrete legislative proposals this summer, weighed against the political likelihood of success.
While Berlin is pressing for far-reaching reform, eastern European countries oppose automatic refugee quotas. Meanwhile, France is wary of giving up control of asylum, and Britain wants Dublin’s core principles untouched so it can still deport some asylum seekers to their EU country of entry.
While the commission sketches out a long-term vision for a fully centralised asylum system, it proposes two more modest options for reform in the short to medium term.
One would involve the system staying largely as it is but with an emergency clause to allow a country faced with a sudden influx to share out refugees.
This is a preferred model for Paris and London, although details of how the “corrective fairness mechanism” would work and whether it would be mandatory are contentious. This is an attempt to strengthen and improve the design of a scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, agreed after months of diplomatic squabbling last year, that has resulted in little more than 600 being moved.
EU officials refused to say whether it would be theoretically possible for countries outside the Schengen passport-free travel area, such as Britain and Ireland, to remain part of the Dublin system but enjoy an exemption from migrant quotas if and when a surge mechanism was used.
A second, more ambitious, option under consideration would require EU countries to sign up to an automatic quota system obliging them to take in a share of all those arriving on EU soil. This would tear up the responsibilities set out in Dublin and be likely to push Britain to opt out of the system.
Alongside this, the commission is seeking to level out differences on how EU countries handle asylum applications. In some cases, approval rates for people from the same country vary by more than 50 per cent. Brussels also wants a common approach to “safe” non-EU countries, to allow for more efficient returns of certain migrants.
As a long-term vision, the blueprint unveiled on Wednesday suggests that EU countries would eventually surrender control of asylum policy to a central body where first decisions on claims are made and refugees distributed on a “fair” basis.
The European Asylum Support Office, which offers only advice and support to member states, would become a federal agency with clout. It would probably require a change to EU treaties that officials admit is hard to envisage in the short or medium term.