Europe has done its duty for refugees: Hollande

Europe has shouldered responsibility for the wave of refugees reaching its shores, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday after EU ministers agreed to relocate 120,000 refugees around the bloc.

Europe has done its duty for refugees: Hollande
Hollande applauds Europe for taking on its responsibility for the refugee crisis. Photo: AFP

“Europe has taken on its responsibilities. It has been able to do this but with conditions and with rules, and that is what France has called for,” Hollande told reporters.

Europe has been struggling to coordinate a united response to an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria.

“Couldn't we manage 120,000 in a continent with 450 million people? We will show that we can do this, and at the same time have rules. That is taking responsibility, that is solidarity,” Hollande added.

The plan was bitterly opposed by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, who argue that the European Commission does not have the right to make them take in people seeking refuge.

Asked about the possibility of sanctions for countries which did not respect Tuesday's agreement, Hollande said Europe had “rules”.

“When you are in the European Union, it comes not just with benefits, it also means playing your part, especially when it comes to accommodating people who are in an extremely difficult situation,” he said.

The agreement came on the eve of a key EU summit on Wednesday which is dedicated to finding ways to help countries to stop the flow of asylum seekers at sources.

Hollande's remarks came as the first refugees from war-torn Syria arrived in Britain, which is exempt from EU asylum and migration policy.

Hollande defended Britain's opposition to being part of a quota system, noting that it was “not in the Schengen area” of passport-free movement.

“But the United Kingdom will play its part as well in the reception of refugees, in particular in so-called resettlement,” Hollande said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020, from camps in countries bordering Syria such as Turkey and Jordan.

Hollande is on a diplomatic visit to Britain, and spoke before meeting Cameron at Chequers, his official country residence where the two will hold talks and a working dinner.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.