Ministers agree to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers despite opposition from Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia
European Union leaders are set to gather for an emergency summit on the refugee crisis, a day after ministers forced through a controversial deal to relocate 120,000 refugees in a major blow to unity within the bloc.
The leaders will gather on Wednesday evening in Brussels to try to adopt a unified approach to the crisis that has seen 477,906 people stream into Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to estimates by the UN refugee agency.
Interior ministers briskly voted through the deal on Tuesday, under which EU countries must take a share of new arrivals from overstretched frontline states, like Greece and Italy.
But in a rare step, it was passed by a majority vote instead of unanimously, with fierce opposition from Eastern European states.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia all voted against the plan, while Finland abstained, straining regional ties as Europe wrestles with its biggest migration crisis since World War II.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said on Wednesday that his country will go to court to challenge the quotas for distributing asylum-seekers.
“We will go in two directions: first one, we will file a charge at the court in Luxembourg… secondly, we will not implement the (decision) of the interior ministers,” Fico told reporters.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the plan was forced through despite opposition because it was an “emergency situation”.
“If we had not done this, Europe would have been even more divided,” he told a press conference.
With the relocation vote out of the way, Wednesday’s emergency EU summit will focus on strengthening the bloc’s external borders, as well as giving extra funding to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and UN agencies.
But there may be trouble ahead as Greece will likely face pressure to accept outside help in managing its borders – renewing sovereignty concerns in Athens just months after it was forced to accept a huge eurozone bailout.
Europe is under increasing pressure over its handling of the influx of hundreds of thousand of refugees this year, many of them fleeing conflict and repression in Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea.
More than 2,500 people, mainly Afghan refugees, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday morning in the space of three hours, a witness told Reuters news agency.
About 40 rubber dinghies each carrying 60 to 70 people arrived in the rain on one beach on the island, which was covered in life jackets and rubber tubes. Some were suffered hypothermia.
The EU’s new relocation plans were outlined after pictures of a drowned Syrian refugee toddler lying on a Turkish beach sparked global outrage.
But the proposal has opened fresh rifts in a bloc already reeling from the Greek debt crisis.
Hungary and its eastern partners oppose the plan because they say Brussels has no right to make them take in thousands of people, and to do so amounts to a violation of their national sovereignty.
“Very soon, we will find that the emperor is naked. Common-sense has lost today!” Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec tweeted after the vote.
In Bratislava, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he was prepared to break the EU’s rules rather than accept the proposal.
“I would rather go to an infringement than to accept this diktat,” he said, quoted by Slovakia’s leading SME daily.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, US President Barack Obama pressed European nations to take their “fair share” of refugees.
The statement, which came after a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday, is likely to be seen as a warning to those who opposed the deal.
But his call will be diluted by accusations that Washington itself has not done enough to address the crisis, despite being the leading humanitarian donor to the region.
With millions of Syrians forced into camps across the Middle East, tens of thousands crossing Europe on foot and hundreds washing up dead on beaches, the US has promised to take in only 10,000 as refugees next year – a figure dwarfed by the up to one million Syrian refugees Germany is expecting to take in this year alone.
The crisis has raised fears that the EU’s cherished Schengen passport-free zone could collapse as countries close their borders to stem the flow of refugees, many of whom are heading for Germany.
Britain, which has exercised its right to opt out of the relocation plan, on Tuesday confirmed the arrival of the first tranche of 20,000 refugees it is taking in over five years from refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.