The preliminary agreement reached on Wednesday paves the way for establishing common rules to manage an unexpected mass arrival of asylum seekers, a crucial element of the European Union's migration reform.
The deal on the so-called Crisis Regulation was sealed during a meeting of ambassadors in Brussels, who were tasked with finishing the work that interior ministers were unable to conclude last week when Italy unexpectedly blocked the draft text.
Italy contested a small part of the legislation centred on the search-and-rescue services provided by NGO vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, which Rome considers a "pull factor" that attracts more migrants to European shores.
Germany, whose vote was necessary to achieve the required qualified majority, defended the NGO vessels, arguing that saving lives at sea is a legal, humanitarian and moral duty. Italian officials had previously criticised the German government for providing state funding to these NGOs.
The stand-off between Rome and Berlin thwarted last week's attempt to strike a deal, despite the hopes raised by a new compromise text tabled by Spain, the country currently holding the EU Council's rotating presidency.
Following consultations with their national governments, ambassadors managed to break the impasse early Wednesday afternoon.
Hungary and Poland, the two leading detractors of the EU's migration reform, voted against the text while Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia abstained, diplomatic sources told Euronews.
"Deal! EU Ambassadors have reached an agreement on the regulation addressing situations of crisis and force majeure in the field of migration and asylum," the Spanish presidency said on X, formerly Twitter.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated the deal as a "real game changer" while Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs, said it had been achieved "with pragmatism, commitment and unity."
The Council will now use this preliminary agreement as its joint position in the negotiations with the European Parliament.
What is the Crisis Regulation?
The Crisis Regulation sets out rules that would apply in exceptional times when the bloc's asylum system is threatened by a sudden and massive arrival of migrants, as was the case during the 2015-2016 migration crisis.
To cope with this unexpected influx, member states would be allowed to apply tougher measures, such as keeping asylum seekers at the border for up to 20 weeks while their requests for international protection are being examined.
The detention of rejected applicants could also be extended from the regular limit of 12 weeks to a maximum of 20 until the process of return is completed.
NGOs believe these derogations could lead to large-scale confinement, degrade the quality of asylum procedures and increase the risk of refoulement (sending migrants back to countries where they face serious harm).
Germany had voiced similar concerns, particularly regarding the rights of children and family members, and had until recently blocked the law by choosing to abstain.
The recital that had pitted Berlin against Rome now reads: "Humanitarian aid operations should not be considered as instrumentalisation of migrants when there is no aim to destabilise the Union or a Member State."
In its original version, the Crisis Regulation also foresaw the possibility of fast-tracking the asylum requests of people who are fleeing a situation of extraordinary danger, such as an armed conflict. The special scheme would have granted refugees swifter access to residence, employment, education and social assistance.
However, in the compromise text approved on Wednesday, that article has been heavily edited and no reference to "immediate protection" can be found.
A comprehensive reform
The Council's position on the Crisis Regulation was the only one missing from the puzzle known as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
The New Pact was presented by the European Commission in September 2020 to replace the ad-hoc crisis management of the past decade with a set of clear-cut rules applicable to all member states.
The five-pronged reform treads a delicate line between solidarity and responsibility to ensure frontline nations, like Italy and Greece, are not left to fend for themselves.
Its central piece is a system of "mandatory solidarity" that offers countries three different options to manage migration flows: welcome a number of successful asylum seekers in their territory, pay €20,000 for each migrant they refuse to relocate, or finance operational support, such as infrastructure and personnel.
This system, which was preliminarily agreed upon in a breakthrough moment in June, is supposed to function on a regular basis while the Crisis Regulation would be triggered only in extraordinary situations that threaten the EU's asylum system.
The Crisis Regulation would also apply when migration is "weaponised" by a foreign government in an attempt to meddle with the bloc's internal affairs, a lesson learned during the border crisis that Belarus instigated in the summer of 2021.
The protracted impasse on the Crisis Regulation risked undermining the EU's migration overhaul and frustrated the European Parliament, which last month decided to pause negotiations on two separate elements of the New Pact until member states unlocked the remaining piece.
Following Wednesday's deal, talks will resume with the goal of wrapping up all five elements of the New Pact before the 2024 European elections.
"The Spanish presidency is the window of opportunity to conclude the Pact on Migration: it's now or never," Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the socialist MEP who acts as rapporteur for the Crisis Regulation, told Euronews last week.
This article has been updated with more information about the preliminary deal.