Brussels: European Union officials are preparing to push EU governments to take in many more asylum-seekers from pressured frontier states, including Hungary, and seeking to overcome resistance to a quota system in eastern Europe.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande gave backing on Thursday to the kind of scheme that EU leaders rejected in June, officials said the EU executive may propose expanding its plan by a factor of four to oblige states to take in 160,000 from Italy, Greece and Hungary.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will make new proposals on Wednesday and his spokesmen declined comment in advance on his plan. But senior EU officials said Juncker, who in May proposed a binding set of quotas for states to take in 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, was now considering nearly trebling that figure and adding 50,000 from Hungary.
National leaders rejected the imposition of quotas from Brussels but their efforts to reach the 40,000 target by means of voluntary offers failed to exceed 32,000, even as the numbers arriving in Italy, Greece and increasingly Hungary have soared far into the hundreds of thousands, levels not seen since 1992.
In a move that could soften resistance among ex-Communist EU states which say they lack their western neighbours` familiarity with mass immigration from outside Europe, one EU official told Reuters that countries could be given an option to pay for others to house migrants if they did not take them themselves.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, visiting Brussels, insisted he would not take large numbers of Muslims and called such quotas an "invitation" to millions more to risk the journey to Europe. Slovakia says it, too, prefers Christian refugees.
Merkel, whose government has said it expects to log 800,000 asylum claims this year, renewed her call deal with the refugee crisis with "fairness and solidarity" and said Germany was ready to take on more that others, given its size and robust economy.
Hollande, whose government spoke out against Juncker`s quota proposals in June, also made clear that France has now thrown its weight behind the idea of obliging other EU states to help the frontier states deal with large numbers of asylum-seekers.
"We have proposed, with German Chancellor Merkel, a permanent and obligatory mechanism," he said. "What exists is no longer enough and there are countries ... who do not assume their moral obligations so we will need to go further."
With Britain staying on the sidelines of the debate as a result of its long-standing opt-out from the EU asylum and migration system, and with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi strongly in favour of the relocation plans, eastern states have found themselves facing an increasingly united western bloc.
The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy wrote a joint letter to EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini ahead of a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on Friday urging an much more centrally coordinated approach to migration.
In the letter, seen by Reuters, they suggested reducing the discretion of national governments to control the EU`s external borders and creating "an integrated border management system".
The leaders of four ex-Communist central European states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, meet in Prague on Friday to debate their approach. During a visit to Brussels, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he would consider relocation quotas, if one were offered that helped Budapest.
After meeting Juncker, he said he had not heard any offer to relocate perhaps over 50,000 asylum-seekers from Hungary but said: "We would be ready to consider proposals to take refugees away from Hungary. But we haven`t seen any yet."
Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz renewed her opposition to binding quotas but said Warsaw was "willing to discuss the scale of our engagement on voluntary terms".
Her fellow conservative and predecessor as Polish premier, Donald Tusk, is now president of the European Council, chairing summits of EU leaders. He warned of a damaging split in the bloc and made a veiled call for eastern states, which have benefited greatly from EU cash transfers, to show solidarity.
"Fair distribution of at least 100,000 refugees among the EU states is what we need today," he told reporters as he welcomed Orban to his Brussels office.
"The countries that are not directly affected by this crisis and have experienced solidarity from the EU in the past should show it to those in need.
"It is truly a paradox that the biggest countries in Europe, like Germany and Italy, need our solidarity. So does Hungary."
Orban told news conference when asked about Friday`s talks in Prague: "There is a different approach to all these issues, of the western countries and central European countries ... It`s not good, so we would like to cooperate and find common words."