EU countries that refuse to host migrants or asylum seekers could be charged up to €20,000 (£17,000) a head under radical proposals aimed at easing the pressure on frontline countries including Italy and Greece.
Home affairs ministers from the 27 member states will attend a crunch meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday to discuss two key proposals including a relocation scheme for more than 100,000 migrants a year.
But the plans have proved highly contentious, with Poland, Hungary and other countries on the border of the EU struggling to see how they can sell them to their voters.
One diplomat said they had chosen a “tortoise method to do it slowly, slowly” to try to find an agreed position among member states but said it would be touch-and-go on Thursday.
“Will we succeed [in getting agreement?]. I hope so but I am not sure. It is 50:50,” said an official.
The proposals centre on irregular migration to Europe, with a separate package of controls being discussed to deal with crisis levels of migration seen after the outbreak of war in Ukraine and in 2015 when more than 1 million migrants were welcomed by Germany.
Two changes being discussed on Thursday are aimed at a fairer distribution of the countries that are responsible for migration and at responding to pleas from Italy and Greece for the rest of the EU to play a part in dealing with migration.
Poland has already said it will not support a compulsory relocation scheme, with the deputy foreign minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk calling it a “pseudo remedy”.
But sources say diplomats from member states have now agreed that the “bottom line is there is no compulsory relocation”.
The policy will instead seek to impose “compulsory solidarity”, taking into account host nations’ capacity to house migrants, mindful of countries such as Ireland who have a housing crisis, or Poland, which is hosting about 1 million Ukranian refugees.
Countries that cannot participate will have to pay into a central fund, which will then be used to bolster the financial capacity of countries who do host migrants.
Diplomats refused to be drawn on reports that the charge per capita would be set at about €20,000. Instead a “range of figures” would be put before ministers gathering in Luxembourg tomorrow.
As a carrot to the frontline countries – Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus, known as the Med5 – the proposals also include limits on the amount of time the “Dublin regulation” applies.
The EU agreed to change its migration and asylum laws after “many, many years” of evidence that the Dublin regulation, which allowed countries to transfer migrants back to the country in which they first arrived, has failed.
Last year the EU received 966,000 asylum requests, a 50% increase on 2021.
Arguments over whether the regulation meant migrants could be returned to Italy, Spain or Greece, by other countries, have been fraught with difficulty.
In April a Dutch court ruled that returning migrants to Italy would put them at risk of “material mistreatment” after Italy said they did not have enough capacity at reception facilities.
Last December the Italian authorities announced they were suspending Dublin transfers temporarily on the basis they could not cope.
“There is a general willingness and a general acceptance of the fact that OK, we’ve had an unsustainable situation for many, many years and the Dublin regulation doesn’t work,” said one diplomat.
The migration and asylum management regulation is aimed at replacing the current Dublin regulation while a separate regulation, the asylum procedures regulation, will set new standards that must be achieved by member states aiming to stamp out “abusive claims” and “harmonise rules on safe country concepts”.
The changes will be of interest to the UK, where the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has launched an aggressive policy using rhetoric centring on the EU’s failed Dublin returns rule.
Achieving agreement on Thursday would be a huge political feat and diplomats say that whatever is agreed, individual home affairs ministers will be mindful of whether it can be sold at home.
“You can both win and lose elections in every member state on migration. That is still the case. That is of course an illustration how politically contentious this is,” said a diplomat.
As part of the wider changes, ministers would also be asked to consider other initiatives to strengthen partnerships in “transition countries”, including Tunisia and Morocco to clamp down on people smuggling and trafficking.
Tools to analyse the capacity of frontline countries to deal with migration would also be given to frontline states as a way of giving countries the means of proving “the glass has filled too much so they need help”.
Oxfam accused the EU of replicating the “broken system” in Greece, where money was poured into refugee camps to try to control surges in arrivals.