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 set foot in, and that country decides whether to accept or reject the 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 their journey unchecked towards wealthy northern European states such as Germany and Sweden.
The commission on Wednesday outlined two options to reform the Dublin system. The initial aim is to trigger debate among member states, with concrete legislative proposals to follow at a later date.
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 kept in place, complemented with a "corrective fairness mechanism" that would be triggered if a mass inflow of asylum seekers places heavy pressures on a given member state.
Once the number of arrivals hits a predefined threshold for that country, a share of asylum seekers would be reallocated across the EU, according to a distribution key.
Under the more ambitious option, all asylum seekers across the EU would be assigned to member states according to a distribution key taking into account the country's size, wealth and capacity to absorb them. Factors such as family links would also be taken into account.
In the long term, the commission suggested that the European Asylum Support Office could be tasked with processing asylum claims.
This would establish a "single and centralized decision-making process," harmonizing procedures and ensuring a "fair sharing of responsibility" among member states, the commission said.
But 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. By Monday, just 1,111 people had been relocated under the scheme.
The commission said it plans to draft its legislative proposals on the basis of the feedback it receives. These would then require member state approval, as well as undergoing scrutiny in the European Parliament.
In the coming months, the commission is also due to present proposals aimed at improving legal migration channels into the EU, through humanitarian resettlement programmes and easier conditions for skilled workers and entrepreneurs.
As part of its asylum overhaul, the commission has also sought to tighten rules on who can claim protection in the bloc.
In September it proposed a common 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, such as the right to have their case heard and additional safeguards for unaccompanied children and minorities.
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