BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments could get 60,000 euros for each asylum-seeker they take in above their quota, or chose to pay that amount if they fall below their share, Malta proposed, in a bid to end a row over migration that has sharply divided Europe.
Tiny Malta, where migrants land after crossing the Mediterranean, hopes to persuade eastern European countries to end their refusal to take in asylum-seekers under a system aimed at relieving the pressure on the southern frontline states.
With anti-immigration sentiment boosting nationalists in elections across the bloc, and Britain's decision to quit the EU, dealing with the unprecedented wave of people fleeing the Middle East and Africa is vital to the EU's future.
The proposal from Malta, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will be discussed by EU states' representatives in Brussels on Wednesday.
It suggests that at times of particularly high migrant arrivals, the distribution of asylum-seekers across the bloc would kick in "quasi-automatically" and each country would be obliged to take a number of them based on its size and wealth.
"In order to overcome the political obstacle to receive an unknown number of persons ... an EU overall cap for allocations could, for example, be set at 200,000 applications per calendar year," says the proposal, seen by Reuters on Monday.
The figure is ambitious, given that EU states only managed to relocate some 17,000 asylum-seekers over nearly two years under a previous programme meant to deal with 160,000 people, which has collapsed in acrimony.
That system formally expires in September and several EU leaders are pushing for a new agreement by the middle of this year. If that fails, as seems likely, the EU is set for a big showdown over migration in the second half of 2017.
Under the Maltese proposal, EU states would be obliged to take in at least half of their quota and could meet the other half by providing help such as money or staff to help with the screening of people arriving in frontline states.
Countries hosting more people than they are due would receive 60,000 euros per extra person over five years. Those who take in fewer people than their quota, would pay the same amount for every asylum-seeker they fail to take.
That compares with a 250,000 euro fine floated by the bloc's executive European Commission a year ago for each asylum seeker a country refuses to take.
For the eastern Europeans, which cite security as well as the largely homogenous make-up of their societies for their refusal to help, Malta suggested a three-year phasing-in period to "further develop their asylum and reception systems".
Editing by Robin Pomeroy