Poland has entered crunch talks aimed at making radical changes to the EU’s migration and asylum laws with the claim that the proposals could result in a “step back” to 2015, when more than a million people flowed into the bloc.
The Polish deputy state secretary of the interior, Bartosz Grodecki, opened the summit of home affairs ministers in Luxembourg by declaring that Warsaw would refuse to pay proposed “fines” for not taking people.
“Politically, pragmatically, this mechanism is unacceptable to us,” he said.
Among the controversial proposals on the table are tools to relieve the pressure felt by frontline countries, including a €22,000 (£19,000) charge for each person a member state says it is unable to host – €2,000 more than the figure that had been put forward on Wednesday.
Poland has argued that it is already hosting almost 1 million Ukrainian refugees, the second largest number in Europe after Germany, and that it has no more political room for manoeuvre.
“There’s no way we can explain to people that if we fail to accept more migrants, we’re going to end up paying through the nose,” Grodecki said.
Diplomats said the probability of a deal being reached on Thursday was no more than 50:50, with one senior source warning that talks, which have been taking place for four years, would only end if ministers felt they could sell the changes back home.
Hungary’s deputy interior minister, Bence Rétvári, also criticised the proposals, claiming that a third of the EU’s migration processing capacity would end up in his country even though it was not a frontline state.
He told the summit that Hungary had already spent more than €1.5bn protecting its borders and had prevented 271,000 “illegal attempts to enter the EU”.
He said a mandatory redistribution of people entering the bloc would amount to a “standing invitation” to criminal gangs to continue operating.
In a sign of the challenges facing the summit, Italy also demanded significant amendments to the proposals despite being part of a core group of seven countries including Germany and France that had attempted to thrash out an agreement before the summit.
It reminded fellow member states of the “damage done to the local social framework” in Italy, and rising tensions in places such as Lampedusa as the number of people landing on its shores increased.
The Italian interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, said: “I don’t want to say I am against this now at the outset, but I think certain aspects need to be tweaked first.”
Further details of the proposed changes emerged on Thursday.
Alongside the €22,000 per capita charge for countries that do not have the capacity to host more people, there is a proposal to allow for a minimum of 30,000 people a year to be relocated from the country in which they first arrive.
A 15-month period during which member states would be obliged to carry out asylum processing is also on the table – a time-frame that several countries including Italy have said is too long.
Greece, which said it had “borne the brunt” of the sharp rise in people entering the bloc in 2015, gave an early indication it would support the proposals, as did the majority of member states.
Among those looking for further concessions were Malta, which said it was “not fair” that it was being “punished because we are saving people’s lives”, and Austria, which made an impassioned plea to stop “the bloody business of human trafficking”.
The latter said it had hosted 112,000 asylum seekers last year, a “dramatic” increase on past numbers, and that 2,500 people had “either suffocated or drowned at the hands of their traffickers”.
Under the rules, the council of ministers must receive 65% support, which is achievable without the support of Poland, Hungary or Italy, but ministers appeared to want a show of unity in order to send a strong message to traffickers and smugglers.
Italian and German ministers and officials were seen in talks on Thursday afternoon that broke up after 15 minutes.
Italy is looking to lower the proposed threshold for declaring their reception capacity is no longer “adequate” from 30,000 migrants to 20,000. It is also looking to lower the time limit which requires it to handle an individual’s asylum claim and strengthen the capacity for returns to Tunisia, where people smuggling is surging.