Divided EU leaders commit another €1B for Syria refugees, but hike border controls

European Union leaders have agreed to give an extra €1 billion ($1.49 billion Cdn) to the United Nations refugee agency and World Food Program to help them offer food and shelter to people fleeing conflicts.

'A concrete plan must finally appear,' European Council President Donald Tusk says

Croatian police officers control a crowd of migrants in front of a reception centre close to Croatia's border with Serbia, in Opatovac, Croatia, on Tuesday. (Zoltan Balogh/MTI via Associated Press)

European Union leaders have agreed to give an extra €1 billion ($1.49 billion Cdn) to the United Nations refugee agency and World Food Program to help them offer food and shelter to people fleeing conflicts.

But that pledge was just part of a range of actions — that include stronger border controls — agreed to by leaders who were meeting to discuss how best to tackle the vast refugee and migration crisis.

European Council President Donald Tusk said that the 28-nation bloc must "regain control of our external borders" or risk destroying the Schengen system and the "European spirit."

Tusk, who chaired the meeting, said all of the leaders "are absolutely sure that without regaining control of our external borders, we have no chance to cope (with) this problem effectively."

To do that, they have promised more staff and equipment for the EU's border and police agencies and the bloc's asylum office.

EU leaders met for dinner a day after interior ministers overrode furious objections from four eastern countries in a vote that will distribute asylum-seekers around the bloc according to mandatory national quotas. Government leaders will try to focus on ways to curb the inflow of refugees that has hit records this summer

The discussions also included looking to deploy more personnel to patrol EU borders and boosting support to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to help them cope with the millions of people fleeing the fighting in Syria.

But feelings are running high as chaotic crowds and varied responses from national capitals have seen borders close inside Europe's cherished passport-free Schengen zone and diplomats expect "theatrics" from some of the 28 leaders as each seeks to shore up domestic support in the face of fears of immigration.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels before the summit started, Tusk forecast an agreement for more help for refugees who stay in the Middle East, via funds for UN agencies, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and others. "Frontline" states like Greece and Italy should also get help on their frontiers.

Around the Council table, German Chancellor Angela Merkel may face criticism of her move last month to take in more Syrians, an action some of her eastern neighbours say fuelled the inflow. Even Tusk, a former Polish premier, said without naming Merkel that most refugees "feel invited to Europe".

The German leader stressed on arrival that it was time for Europeans to work together. "Faced with a great challenge, it cannot be that Europe says 'We can't handle this'," Merkel said.

"That's why I say again and again: We can do this."

Re-elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will hear calls from the north to use new EU support — both in money and manpower — to tighten controls on the bloc's Mediterranean frontiers.

Establishing a principle of "relocating" some asylum-seekers has been a key demand of Rome in particular, which wants to end a rule that states they should remain in the first EU state they enter. Northern countries accuse Italy and Greece of undermining the Schengen area by simply letting migrants move on unchecked.

Eastern opposition

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban can be expected to offer a typically robust defence of the razor-wire fencing he has erected to keep out migrants and his view, shared in some other ex-communist states, that Muslim immigration is unwelcome.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, centre, arrives at a European Union leaders summit on the migrant crisis, in Brussels on Wednesday. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

He insisted he was only following EU rules and said that if Greece could not defend its borders, Athens should ask for help.

His Slovak ally, Prime Minister Robert Fico, said he would challenge in EU courts Tuesday's rare majority-vote decision to impose quotas on states for taking in up to 120,000 asylum-seekers, mainly from Italy and Greece.

"We have been refusing this nonsense from the beginning, and as a sovereign country we have the right to sue," Fico said.

However, many leaders and the EU officials organising the summit — which will not take formal legal decisions — are keen to put the row over "relocation" behind them for now.

Collectively, national leaders may be chided by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's chief executive whose commission named 19 countries, including Germany, France, Greece, Italy and Hungary though not Slovakia, for breaches of EU asylum laws.

States face EU court fines if they do not fix problems that include failure to properly accommodate people claiming asylum — Greece was singled out for particularly serious shortcomings.

"One of the reasons why the asylum system ... isn't working is because member states do not apply it," Juncker's deputy, Frans Timmermans, told a news conference.

Border control

Turkey, locked in a long love-hate relationship with Europe and through which the bulk of the summer's migrants have reached Greece, may hear promises of up to two billion euros to help build schools and provide for the welfare of the two million Syrians it has accommodated from the civil war.

Johannes Hahn, who deals with the EU's neighbours as a member of the executive Commission, said on Wednesday that a trust fund established to help Syrian refugees across the region, including in Jordan and Lebanon, could reach one billion euros on a mix of pledges from the EU and the member states.

The commission, among proposals adopted at its weekly meeting on Wednesday, also called on them to reverse cuts in their funding for the World Food Program.

Overall, Juncker said, the EU had doubled the funds targeted to deal with migration to 9.5 billion euros.

With files from The Associated Press


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