European Union countries have reached a major deal to revamp the bloc's migration and asylum policy.
It represents the first breakthrough of its kind after years of divisive and bitter debates that have pitted capitals against each other.
The agreement paves the way for introducing new rules to collectively manage the reception and relocation of asylum seekers. Last year, the EU received more than 962,000 asylum applications, the highest figure since 2016.
The rules were put to a vote during a meeting of home affairs ministers in Luxembourg, which had been preceded by an atmosphere of optimism that appeared to increase the odds of a positive outcome.
But the talks proved hard and laborious: ministers and their deputies spent virtually the whole day haggling over nitty-gritty details and rewriting compromise texts.
Sweden, the country that holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, pushed its fellow member states to stay put and continue negotiations until a wide consensus was found.
In the end, the new rules were endorsed by a margin wider than anticipated, with only Hungary and Poland opposing the final draft.
Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained, diplomats with knowledge of the negotiations told Euronews.
Italy, a country seen as a deal-maker due to its geographic location, chose to vote in favour, cementing the qualified majority.
"It is a historic step and a great success to finally be able to unite so many member states around a common position," said Maria Malmer Stenergard, Sweden's minister of migration, at the end of the meeting.
"We have once again shown that (by) working together, the European community can achieve great things in the field of migration."
Malmer Stenergard described the agreement, which still needs to go through the full legislative cycle, as a "good balance" between the principles of solidarity – coded language for relocation – and responsibility – the brunt borne by frontline countries who have to process the majority of asylum applications.
"To be honest, I didn’t really believe I would be sitting here saying this, but here we are," she noted.
Speaking by the minister's side, Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs, spoke of a "really important day" that had restored "trust and cooperation" among the 27 member states.
"It has been a marathon," she said, recalling how when she took office in 2019, the topic of migration was considered "more or less toxic."
"When we trust each other, we are so strong, there's so much we can achieve," she added.
The rules endorsed on Thursday stem from the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a holistic proposal presented by the European Commission back in September 2020.
The pact's most innovative element is a system of "mandatory solidarity" that will give member states three options in times of migratory pressure.
- Accept a number of relocated asylum-seekers.
- Pay for the return of rejected applicants to their country of origin.
- Finance operational support, such as infrastructure and personnel.
Governments will be allowed to freely choose the option they prefer and no one will be forced to relocate migrants, a key guarantee to secure the votes from Central and Eastern Europe.
This solidarity mechanism was one of the two pieces of legislation that were voted upon on Thursday, together with a new set of rules on fast-tracked border procedures to examine the requests of those who illegally cross the borders.
At the end of the meeting, Malmer Stenergard confirmed the one-off payment for each rejected applicant will be provisionally set at €20,000, which will then be channelled into a yet-to-defined common EU fund.
The number of relocation will be 30,000 asylum seekers per year. Additional provisions have been included in case the pledges fall short of the target.
The political agreement allows the EU Council to start negotiations with the European Parliament, which has a somewhat diverging position on the matter. The goal is to wrap up the legislation before next year's EU elections.
"I'm not afraid of trilogues," Johansson said, referring to the interinstitutional discussions that lie ahead.
Asked about possible non-compliance by countries who oppose the reform, Johansson said the European Commission will act as "the guardian of the treaties" to ensure legislation is fully respected once it enters into force.
The ultimate objective underlying the reform is to install a permanent and predictable system to manage migration that can definitely replace the ad-hoc crisis mode that has been in place since the 2015 migration crisis and has proven woefully inadequate to cope with a challenge that exceeds national borders.
This article has been updated to include more details about the agreement.