EU countries overcome key obstacle in yearslong plan to overhaul the bloc’s asylum rules

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European Union countries on Wednesday overcame a major obstacle in their yearslong quest to overhaul the bloc’s asylum rules amid warnings that time is running out to clinch agreement on the entire scheme before next year’s EU elections.

EU envoys clinched a deal on a “crisis regulation” of extraordinary measures that a country could take in the event of a massive, unforeseen movement of migrants toward its borders. It means that the 27 member countries now have a negotiating position to take into talks with the EU parliament.

Wednesday’s deal would involve setting up processing centers on the EU’s outside borders where people would be screened when they arrive and includes the option to detain people until their asylum claims are assessed.

“Today we have achieved a huge step forward on a critical issue for the future of the EU,” said Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, whose country currently holds the bloc’s rotating presidency.

He said it could allow the EU to seal the so-called New Pact on Asylum and Migration by year’s end.

The pact was touted as the answer to the EU’s migration woes when it was made public in September 2020. The bloc’s old rules collapsed in 2015 after well over 1 million people arrived in Europe without authorization. Most were fleeing war in Syria or Iraq.

But little progress was made on the pact as the member states bickered over which country should take charge of migrants when they arrive and whether other countries should be obligated to help.

Instead, the EU focused on outsourcing the challenge by clinching morally questionable agreements with countries that people leave or transit to get to Europe. A deal with Tunisia, where authorities have been accused of dumping migrants in the desert, was the latest example.

The clock is ticking on the whole asylum deal. Elections will be held across the EU in June. For the scheme to enter force, officials and lawmakers say, an agreement on all its 10 parts must be reached between the member countries and parliament by February.

A new European Commission and European Parliament will start work next year and they may want to modify the pact, raising the risk that it might unravel. Countries with anti-migrant governments – Hungary, first, then Poland – will take over the EU presidency after the polls.

“Time is running out. In a few months there will be elections. We need the pact done and dusted before Europeans go out to vote,” commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas told lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.

“The whole of Europe is now watching us,” he said. “If we fail then we will give fuel to the false claims made by the enemies of democracy, by Russian disinformation, that Europe is incapable of managing migration.”

Schinas and commission President Ursula von der Leyen are part of the conservative European People’s Party, the biggest bloc in the EU parliament. They want to woo the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni into the fold and have taken a tougher line on migrants recently.

Human rights organizations are concerned about the EU’s approach to its migration pact.

“It is vital that the rush to reach an agreement does not lead to human rights being side-lined in the process. We fully expect all EU institutions to insist that these rights are guaranteed as negotiations advance in the coming months,” said Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s EU office.


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