STRASBOURG (Reuters) - European Union chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker appealed to European countries on Wednesday to share out a wave of refugees crowding in on their frontiers, but at the same time promised tougher border controls to keep unwanted migrants out.
As he spoke, disarray across the continent was driven home when police in Hungary, Austria and Denmark closed major highways as groups of migrants, hundreds strong, marched north. Defying Hungary’s new border fence and EU asylum rules, tens of thousands are crossing frontiers to reach Germany and Sweden.
Facing opposition from national leaders who blocked an earlier plan to move asylum-seekers from overburdened Italy, Greece and Hungary, Juncker used his annual State of the Union speech to the European Parliament to raise the stakes and quadruple to 160,000 the number he wants taken in under mandatory quotas.
“The numbers are impressive. For some they are frightening,” he said, referring to figures suggesting half a million may have arrived in Europe this year. “But now is not the time to take fright. It is time for bold, determined and concerted action.”
His appeal to “historical fairness”, reminding east Europeans of their own past welcome as refugees, had a mixed reception.
The Czech and Slovak leaders stood firm against quotas, which they say will attract more migrants and disrupt their homogenous societies. But with Germany and France throwing their weight behind Juncker, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said she too had got his message.
“Calls for Polish solidarity is no blackmail,” she said after her opponent in next month’s election said the biggest ex-Communist member state should not give in to EU pressure.
“Acting jointly and efficiently in the EU is in our interest,” Kopacz said. “Let’s be decent ... President Juncker has reminded us that once we were also refugees.”
The European Commission chief said after his speech that he had been encouraged by his recent conversations with national leaders before their interior ministers meet on Monday to try to find a common position on his proposals.
With no let up in violence in Iraq and Syria, four million of whose citizens are now refugees in neighboring countries, the European crisis has piqued consciences globally. Australia said it would accept another 12,000 Syrians and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was committed to take more.
Europe should also take in more refugees before they made risky voyages arranged by criminal gangs to reach it, Juncker said And it needed to support Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, whose hospitality to Syrians and Iraqis has outstripped the EU’s.
He also proposed a permanent mechanism for relocation when states face a surge in arrivals. Under current rules, the first EU country that people enter must process their claims for asylum. Apart from Britain, Ireland and Denmark, which have standing exemptions, states can only opt out if they face their own crisis. That would be limited to one year and they would also have to pay a “financial contribution”.
EU officials say the executive is ready to push the Council of member states to override any deadlock by forcing a vote - something leaders are normally loath to do, and which might further expose an east-west split on the issue.
Juncker renewed his criticism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s building of the fence on the border with non-EU Serbia but conceded there were no easy solutions.
The Commission’s latest seven-point package of proposals, which also included a 1.8 billion-euro fund to help African states that are home to many economic migrants, stressed swifter and less patchy deportation of those who do not qualify for asylum.
It published a list of “safe countries” - in the Balkans and Turkey - whose citizens would face “fast-track” removals on the grounds that most had little to fear to justify being refugees.
Juncker also called for a beefing up of the EU’s Frontex border agency and a possible future EU border guard force.
But the application of common EU standards is variable. EU officials concede that, even with the ongoing establishment of EU-staffed “hotspots” to help Italy and Greece filter new arrivals across the Mediterranean, it remains unclear how large numbers of unwilling people can be coerced into leaving.
The same is true of those relocated. Many of the Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans whom the EU says are most deserving and will form the bulk of those offered accommodation want to reach wealthy countries like Germany and Sweden.
Although legally restricted to the state where their asylum claim is being processed, the summer has shown how people may ignore that, straining Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.
On Wednesday, some 300 people, including children, started walking along the main motorway linking Denmark to Germany, seemingly intent on crossing to Sweden, already home to many refugees.
Amnesty International said: “While the proposals ... today will help to address the refugee crisis, they certainly will not solve it - neither in the short-term nor the long-term. EU member states must work with the Commission to implement a much more ambitious overhaul of the EU’s asylum system.”
Juncker, a former Luxembourg premier who in nine months in the job has angered erstwhile colleagues around the EU summit table by accusing them of petty nationalisms, won a mostly warm reception for his emotional appeal from lawmakers in Strasbourg.
“It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa. That is something to be proud of and not something to fear,” he said in an 80-minute address that he insisted on making despite the death of his mother on Sunday.
“The Europe I want to live in is illustrated by those who want to help,” he added, denouncing calls to discriminate among refugees according to their religion and saying that an ageing continent needed new, legal ways to attract workers and talent.
He was heckled by Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, who said most of those arriving were economic migrants and the EU should emulate Australia’s “stop the boats” policy to halt a flow of “biblical proportions”.
Italian lawmaker Gianluca Buonanno of the anti-immigration Northern League donned an Angela Merkel face-mask to interrupt Juncker to suggest the German chancellor was dictating asylum policy to Europe. Berlin has complained Italy has been doing too little to stop migrants from traveling north.
Juncker said the refugee crisis was his top priority, before the economy, Greece’s debt woes, Ukraine, climate change and a looming vote on Britain’s membership of the bloc.
That list of issues showed the European Union was in a bad state, he said, declaring: “There is not enough Europe in this Union, and there is not enough union in this Union.”
Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Teis Jensen in Copenhagen and Michael Shields in Vienna; Writing by Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald, editing by Larry King