Europe must improve migration procedures on its external borders, seal more deals with foreign countries and synchronise asylum policies in the bloc before it tackles the thorny issue of hosting asylum seekers, a top EU official said on Friday.
European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs summits of EU leaders, spoke to Reuters and five other European news agencies as the bloc prepares to have a fresh go at reforming its troubled asylum laws.
The system all but collapsed amidst a surge in arrivals of those fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa with more than a million people reaching the EU in 2015. This fuelled support for eurosceptic and nationalist groups, as well as contributing to Brexit.
"It's not easy, it's a difficult question and a difficult topic," Michel said. "Let's start with some initiatives which will help us be more efficient and maybe decrease political sensitivity of some other topics."
By the latter, he meant deep rifts among the 27 EU countries over how to care for refugees and migrants.
Under the EU's now-defunct rules, the southern states of arrival like Italy, Malta or Greece are responsible but they were quickly overwhelmed at the height of the sea arrivals season.
Countries opposed to immigration, such as Poland and Hungary, as well as Austria, however, refuse to help by hosting some of those people.
Years of such disputes damaged the EU's cohesion, as well as leading it to tighten its external borders and asylum policies.
That has cut the numbers crossing the Mediterranean on unsafe dinghies but also drawn fire from rights groups over drownings and "Fortress Europe" denying help to those in need.
The bloc's executive now wants overhaul of EU asylum law.
Sources told Reuters the proposal would still include obligatory relocation of asylum seekers among all member states at times of major immigration spikes, the element previously vehemently rejected by several states.
While the Commission's proposal is expected at the end of September at the earliest, Michel said member states should first work more on external borders and clinching deals with foreign capitals under which the EU offers money and assistance in exchange for them hosting migrants and refugees rather than letting them embark for Europe.
Michel also proposed convergence of asylum benefits across the EU, where rich countries like Germany and Sweden are the most desired destinations, which contributes to uneven distribution of people across the bloc.
"Mandatory relocation is not the alpha and omega of the migration discussion. These threee points are more important," he said.
Germany, which now holds the EU's rotating presidency, hopes to get before the end of the year a "political road map" for a future deal to end rows over migration at a time when the EU faces challenges in its ties with Russia, China, Turkey and the United States.
Stressing how tall an order that would be, a senior EU diplomat told Reuters: "We are very far away from any sort of consensus. For different political reasons, the matter is still completely poisonous."