By Francesco Guarascio and Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union failed on Monday to agree on how to spread 40,000 asylum seekers in Greece and Italy among its members over the next two years, postponing the decision until the end of the year, EU diplomats said.
Underscoring how divisive the issue has become, ministers showed little solidarity despite a deal struck by EU leaders at a summit in June.
"Countries will stick to the 40,000 target but want to agree on their distribution later this year," one EU diplomat said.
Following the deaths of some 700 people on a fishing boat heading for Italy from Libya in April, EU leaders called for agreement on a relocation plan by the end of July.
EU home affairs ministers "will respect the summit's indications by committing to the relocation of 40,000 asylum seekers, but the actual numbers for each member state will be defined in another meeting by December," a second diplomat said.
Two EU officials said the total of all commitments stands at about 35,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, short of the goal set by the EU Commission, the EU executive.
An estimated 150,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea so far in 2015, most of them arriving in Italy and Greece, the International Organization for Migration said. More than 1,900 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean, twice the toll during the period last year, spokesman Joel Millman said.
Before the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was time the European Union had "a foreign and interior policy aimed at solidarity."
A deal soon is critical. The EU needs to turn its attention to the growing numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Balkan peninsula to reach Central Europe. Hungary has received the EU's highest number of asylum applications in the first quarter of 2015, according to European Union data.
Under the plan discussed today, the Commission wants EU governments to take in 20,000 refugees from their countries of origin, such as Syria, or in transit, in neighboring Lebanon or Jordan. That part of the plan has been agreed by ministers.
In addition, EU governments were asked to agree on shifting the 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU countries over the next two years.
Spain and Poland were among the staunchest opponents to the relocation plan. But other countries as well committed to taking fewer migrants than the EU had requested, or not committing at all, one diplomat said.
Poland has committed to take in just 1,000, falling short of the EU Commission's requests of more than 2,500.
"We are very critical of the relocation plan because it will create a pull factor" attracting more migrants to Europe instead of preventing their departure, said Spain's home affairs minister, Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
"Austria has become the first target country and deals with ten times more asylum seekers' application than Greece and Italy put together and this cannot be right," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters.
In exchange for taking in more refugees, the Commission blueprint involves stricter identification of migrants arriving to Europe and streamlined procedures to send home those who cannot claim international protection.
(Editing by Larry King)