European Union interior ministers agreed Thursday that sweeping new proposals to revamp the bloc's failed asylum system should form the basis for negotiations on building a fresh policy for managing the arrival of unauthorized migrants in Europe.
However, the ministers sought clarification about many aspects of the proposals — brought forward by the European Commission in a package dubbed the New Pact for Migration and Asylum — particularly on new plans to deport people who aren't permitted to stay.
The plan is aimed at ending years of chaos at Europe's borders and a political crisis sparked by migrant arrivals that has seen some EU countries turn their backs on Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, where most people seeking better lives enter.
"There is a great deal of willingness to continue to work based on the commission proposal," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters, after chairing the meeting, the first time the proposals have been discussed by the 27 EU member countries.
Seehofer said the plan "addresses the key points for a possible future migration pact," but he conceded that it wasn't welcomed with entirely open arms, saying "obviously, there are differing perspectives, differing views."
The plan must be endorsed by all member nations and the European Parliament. Seehofer, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency until Dec. 31, said he hoped a political deal would be sealed before then but that the pact was only likely to be finalized next year.
Time is of the essence for Europe's politicians — not just because people are languishing at sea in rickety boats or in squalid migrant camps — but because the colder weather means that fewer people are likely to attempt the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese was encouraged that the proposals mark a change in policy but, she said, "we are at the beginning of a long process and a very complex negotiation" that must ensure that the countries where most migrants enter don't carry the burden alone.
Under the proposals, migrants arriving at Europe's outside borders without permission would be screened within five days. They would then enter an asylum procedure or be deported, both within 12 weeks. People could be held in detention throughout.
EU countries would then face two choices: take in some of the refugees or provide other material and logistical support; or for those not willing, take charge of deporting people whose applications are refused. Mandatory refugee quotas have been abandoned.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she was "very encouraged" by the ministers' response to the proposals she helped draw up.
"There was no member state that said they were fully satisfied with everything in the proposal," she said. "So, they all have some concerns, they all have some questions, they all have some amendments they would like to see."
But she added that she sees no "obstacles that are impossible to deal with in the negotiations to come."
Still, Johansson said "many member states" wanted details about the plans for what are being called "return sponsorships;" the process by which countries would take charge of sending people who are refused asylum back home.
Broadly speaking, countries that accept to host refugees would receive 10,000 euros ($11,650) per person in assistance from the EU's coffers. Those that don't would have eight months to deport people not allowed in or be forced to accept them.
In recent years, only about a third of all people ordered to be sent home were deported.