BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe is facing a defining moment tackling the largest influx of refugees since World War II as diverging paths for handling the crisis came into focus across the region.
“I’ve rarely held such an innermost conviction that this is a task that will decide whether Europe is accepted as a continent of values,” Merkel said Tuesday after meeting Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven in Berlin. “On this issue where the whole world’s eyes are upon us, we can’t just say Syria is too far away, we won’t deal with it.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that providing 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in added funds for refugees is an “absolute priority.” That contrasted with Istvan Simicsko, named Hungary’s defense minister Monday, who said his country will devote more resources to speeding up the fortification of a razor-wire border fence.
The two countries are indicative of a wider divide within the European Union, with Germany among nations calling for greater burden sharing by introducing refugee quotas across the 28-member bloc, and others such as Hungary arguing that doing so will simply encourage more migrants to come. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is taking a get-tough approach by building the fence, beefing up the number of soldiers along the border and pushing through stricter laws.
Hungary plans to deploy as many as 4,000 soldiers to complete the construction of the fence on its border with Serbia should parliament approve the measure, Simicsko said.
Germany — which estimates that 800,000 migrants will enter the country in 2015, nearly four times last year’s figure — is backing a European Commission plan that will be announced on Wednesday. Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission’s president, will propose relocating 120,000 migrants in Italy, Greece and Hungary to countries throughout the E.U., said an E.U. official who asked not to be identified.
The list of nations deemed free of political persecution to which people can be safely returned will expand to include E.U. candidate countries in the western Balkans and Turkey.
“Sweden and Germany are of the opinion that we need binding quotas, binding numbers of refugees who have a right to asylum and who are then fairly distributed across E.U. member states based on certain principles,” Merkel said. “Unfortunately, we’re far off from that — and therefore we’re of the opinion that something has to change here.”
The U.K., Ireland and Denmark won’t be included in the proposal because they have an opt-out on immigration policy.
Hungary, Slovakia and other east European countries argue their mostly homogeneous populations aren’t prepared to accept large numbers from the Middle East and that they’re ill-equipped to discern who among the refugees really need asylum and who are simply seeking better jobs. They also say most migrants want to go to Sweden and Germany because economic opportunities are better in those countries.
Austria, which is expecting as many as 80,000 asylum requests this year, is one of the proponents of a quota system. Chancellor Werner Faymann said, “There are tough discussions, and I experienced some yesterday. It’s unacceptable for the European Union that some countries, just because they aren’t personally affected to the same extent, don’t contribute to a common solution. ”