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‘Everything is still up for negotiation’: Migration reform hangs in the balance

‘Everything is still up for negotiation’: Migration reform hangs in the balance

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EU governments are racing against the clock to clinch their first major overhaul in years of the bloc’s key asylum policies, but as of late Wednesday, “everything is still up for negotiation,” Sweden’s Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard told POLITICO.

Sweden currently holds the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency, putting it in charge of navigating the bloc’s latest attempt to seal a new deal on how it processes and relocates asylum seekers.

In recent weeks, officials sent signals that an agreement on the two very contentious files on the table may soon be possible. But talks have grown tense as negotiators near a potential finish line, with officials still fighting over the specifics of how migrants could be more evenly distributed across Europe.

Still, while Malmer Stenergard conceded that numerous issues remained unresolved, she said a deal was not out of the question.

“I am prepared for negotiations all night [but] I’m hopeful,” she said.

Negotiators are up against the clock because they had hoped to get a settled text to EU interior ministers for their meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday. An agreement on the two files could then pave the way for a final deal before the European elections next year. 

Malmer Stenergard said any deal should strike a balance between assisting border countries with the rising number of asylum seekers arriving and limiting those migrants’ ability to then move without permission within the EU.

“If you make changes in one part, then in order to keep the balance, the countries with the opposite opinion claim a change in their direction,” the Swedish minister said.

The EU has repeatedly failed to reform asylum rules over the last decade due to conflicting interests and political posturing from leaders who have made migration a top election issue.

The latest negotiations have been viewed as the best chance to enact reform in years. And while a deal may still happen, Malmer Stenergard and several diplomats involved in the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks, all indicated numerous issues remained unsettled.

Some diplomats complained that new scope of a rule to simplify the return of migrants whose asylum applications are rejected to transit countries has been narrowed to the point that it is a concern of a dozen members states including the South, France and the Netherlands. And the same diplomats say it will be one of the crucial points in the talks. “Without a solution to broaden the possibilities for returns to safe third countries we risk overburdening frontline states with huge numbers of migrants,” said one of the EU diplomats. “That would undermine the new system before it’s even off the ground.”

And Malmer Stenergard indicated there was also no agreement on another contentious subject: Whether children should be exempt from the asylum processing system at the border, which often results in short detentions. Germany has pushed for the exemptions.

Another open issue: How much countries must pay to not accept migrants. Malmer Stenergard said the latest figure was  €‎20,000 “per person,” in line with what POLITICO previously reported. The push to force countries to pay this amount even if they won’t take in migrants has angered some, including the Polish government.

More broadly, the EU’s three most populous countries — Germany, France and Italy — have yet to decide whether they would support the migration package and are demanding major concessions, according to internal documents seen by POLITICO. 

Italy’s support is crucial as it is one of the countries receiving the highest number of asylum seekers.

A second EU diplomat, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the mood as “a rather large group of countries” that are willing to say “yes, ok, but we want a little bit more.” 

Malmer Stenergard is wary of allowing too many more delays to the already-elongated process. 

“There is a momentum now, and I am convinced that it will not be easier to find a position if we postpone the voting,” she said.

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