The European Union's executive put forward options Wednesday to spread refugees more evenly across member states, after the bloc's asylum system broke down under the strain of last year's migration surge into Europe.
But any efforts to change the current rules are likely to run into opposition, notably in Central European member states, which have resisted efforts for them to take in a greater share of refugees.
"The current system is not sustainable," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday, adding that the existing rules "have placed too much responsibility on just a few member states."
Under the EU's so-called Dublin rules, asylum seekers must register their claim in the first member state they reach, and that country decides on their request.
For most of the more than 1 million people reaching the bloc last year, this would have been Greece. But the country was overwhelmed by the arrivals, letting many of them continue unchecked towards wealthy northern European states such as Germany and Sweden.
The commission outlined two options Wednesday to reform the Dublin system. The initial aim is to trigger debate among member states, with legislative proposals to follow in the coming months.
One option would involve tweaking the existing Dublin rules, while the second, more controversial approach foresees a fundamental change to the EU's asylum system.
Under the first alternative, the Dublin system would be fitted out with a "corrective fairness mechanism" that would be triggered by a mass inflow of asylum seekers into a given member state. A share of them would then be reallocated across the EU.
Under the second option, all asylum seekers entering the EU would be assigned to member states according to a distribution key that takes into account the country's size, wealth and capacity to absorb them. Factors such as family links would also be taken into account.
Either system would provide "much-needed solidarity between member states in managing our collective responsibility to protect those in need," Timmermans said.
The commission suggested that asylum requests could eventually be processed at an EU level, for example by the European Asylum Support Office.
"But in political terms, it is not realistic to talk about this today," Timmermans noted.
Any move to shift asylum decisions away from national capitals is likely to face strong resistance, as the issue is highly sensitive and has triggered a populist backlash in several member states.
A one-off decision last year to redistribute up to 160,000 asylum seekers across the EU, taking them out of countries such as Greece and Italy, has barely had an impact. Just over 1,100 people have been relocated under the scheme.
Europe's migration surge has also fed into security concerns, with indications that terrorists may have infiltrated last year's flows into Europe.
The EU's executive on Wednesday laid out easier ways of sharing data on people crossing the bloc's frontiers among border, police and judicial authorities across member states. The commission has pledged that the new measures would respect fundamental rights and data protection rules.
"Terrorist attacks on our soil have shown the threat to our security, at the same time as we face a migratory crisis of unprecedented proportions," said Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. "Information-sharing is at the nexus of both," he added.
The commission further proposed an automated EU entry and exit system to register arrivals and departures, process visas and identify overstayers. Unmanned self-service kiosks could speed up border procedures.
The proposal will require the approval of EU governments and lawmakers.
In the coming months, the commission is also due to present legislation aimed at improving legal migration channels into the EU for asylum seekers and skilled workers.
Meanwhile, it has sought to tighten rules on who can claim protection in the bloc.
In September, the commission proposed an EU list of safe countries whose nationals cannot request asylum in the bloc, including Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
But the EU Fundamental Rights Agency said Wednesday that the proposal raises a number of possible concerns about the protection of asylum seekers' rights.
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