The migrant crisis overwhelming the European Union tugged at the very fabric of the 28-nation bloc Wednesday with bitter divisions casting a shadow over an emergency summit aimed at staunching the flow of asylum-seekers.
Leaders meeting in Brussels were looking at long-term ways to tackle “the dramatic situation at our external borders and strengthen controls at those borders,” according to a draft text seen by The Associated Press.
Proposals included deploying more personnel to patrol EU borders, donating at least $1.1 billion (1 billion euros) to international aid agencies to help refugees in camps near conflict zones like Syria and boosting support to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to help them cope with the millions fleeing the fighting in Syria.
European Union President Donald Tusk urged divided EU nations to set aside their differences and work together to hammer out a concrete plan “in place of the arguments and the chaos we have witnessed in the last weeks.”
French President Francois Hollande was more blunt.
“Those who don’t share our values, those who don’t even want to respect those principles, need to start asking themselves questions about their place in the European Union,” he said on his way into the meeting.
His remarks came after four eastern European nations – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – voted against a plan adopted Tuesday to relocate 120,000 asylum-seekers to other member states over the next two years to ease the strain on Italy and Greece, which are on the front line of the crisis. European officials said the vote was binding on all countries, including those that voted against it.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country will try to block the deal in an EU court.
“We won’t implement this decision because we think it can’t work,” Fico said.
Around half a million people have fled to Europe so far this year in search of sanctuary or jobs. As numbers swell, nations have tightened border security. Hungary has put up a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia and is close to completing a similar fence separating it from fellow EU member Croatia.
Many of the migrants are arriving via risky boat crossings from Turkey to the Greek islands.
Hungary’s hard-line Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the European Union should come to Greece’s aid in protecting the bloc’s most porous border.
“If the Greeks are not able to defend their own borders, we should ask kindly, because Greece is a sovereign country, to let other countries of the European Union defend the Greek borders,” he said.
The refugee crisis has reignited tensions between Balkan neighbours Croatia, an EU member, and Serbia, which aspires to join the bloc. The countries fought a bitter war in the 1990s as the former Yugoslavia crumbled.
Croatia has closed its border with Serbia to all but food transports in an attempt to halt the flow of migrants.
Serbia issued an ultimatum to Croatia to reopen its frontier to all cargo by midnight Wednesday or face unspecified retaliation.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said she spoke to the Serb and Croat prime ministers and urged them to resolve their differences.
“Closing borders is not a solution,” she said. “In that part of our continent, it might bring back difficult feelings and emotions that we don’t need in this moment.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would donate 100 million pounds ($152 million) – including 40 million pounds ($61 million) to the World Food Program – to help feed refugees in camps close to the conflicts they are fleeing.
“We must make sure that people in refugee camps are properly fed and looked after, not least to help them but also to stop people wanting to make, or thinking of making this very, very difficult and very dangerous journey to Europe,” he said.
Before the summit, the European Commission’s top official in charge of relations with the bloc’s neighbours said he hoped that 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) could be drummed up for a “trust fund” to help Syrian refugees.
The official, Johannes Hahn, also said the European Commission is in discussions with Turkey about freeing up some of the funds earmarked for that country’s EU membership process to use for dealing with the refugee influx there.
As the leaders headed to Brussels, a further 5,000 migrants were converging on the Austrian border with Hungary, police there said.
Austria’s Chancellor, Werner Faymann, harked back to another recent crisis that the EU managed to head off in Greece.
“We prevented the collapse of the banks, and now we have to prevent the collapse of humanity in Europe,” he said. [AP]