By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive on Wednesday proposed strengthening the bloc's common asylum rules in response to the chaotic arrival of more than a million migrants and refugees last year that has strained EU cohesion.
The proposal drew swift criticism from the Czech Republic, highlighting deep divisions within the EU about how to amend what is known as the Dublin rules, under which people must claim asylum in the first EU state they enter.
That system has left frontline states Greece and Italy unable and unwilling to offer asylum to all arrivals and seen many migrants trek north, prompting border closures that threaten the EU's Schengen system of passport-free travel.
A first option presented by the European Commission would add a "corrective fairness mechanism" that would relocate asylum seekers from frontline states to elsewhere in the bloc - a method now being employed on an ad hoc basis.
A second is to create a new system that would ignore where people arrived in the EU and send them around the bloc according to a "permanent distribution key".
"In both cases, asylum-seekers will be automatically redistributed between member states," the bloc's Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference. "We need a fair share of responsibility and more solidarity ingrained in our system."
Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec responded on Twitter: "The proposal for reform of the European migration policy is based again on implementing compulsory quotas. We have repeatedly said NO to that."
Longer term, the Commission also proposed a more centralized asylum process within EU institutions, rather than basing it on national laws, though this is unlikely to find much support among member states.
EU STATES SPLIT
The European Commission said it wanted to come up with legal proposals by the summer after EU states and institutions have given their views on the options.
Germany, which took in a million people last year who mostly arrived initially in Greece, wants to stick to the main principle of first point of entry but have a permanent relocation scheme in place for asylum-seekers. Italy has pushed for the abolition of the first-country rule.
Britain, which will vote in a referendum in June on whether to quit the bloc, does not take part in most EU asylum policies.
The Commission's proposals appear to rule out maintaining the status quo, despite Prague and some other governments not wishing to see any change in a system under which they now take in very few refugees.
Different asylum rules in EU states have encouraged chaotic flows of refugees within the EU as they moved from frontline countries to Germany, Sweden and other states whose laws, or economic prosperity, offer them the most beneficial conditions.
The Commission floated an idea to introduce legal punishment for irregular movements by non-Europeans between countries in the bloc and proposed a stronger mandate for the European Asylum Support Office.
In another plan likely to draw mixed response from EU states, the Commission said the bloc needed a long-term resettlement scheme to bring people into Europe directly from crisis zones as an alternative to the dangerous routes.
Turkey and Germany said on Wednesday an EU deal with Ankara to stem the flow of migrants to Greece was showing signs of success, although many were still trying to cross the Aegean Sea.
EU states on Wednesday agreed a common position on creating a joint European Border and Coast Guard that would help police the bloc's external borders and will start talks on the proposal with the European Parliament. Brussels hopes to launch the border agency in the second half of the year.
Separately, the Commission also rolled out other technical proposals to strengthen the EU's external borders in an attempt to tackle both the migrant influx and security threats after deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.
(Additional reporting by Robert Muller in Prague, Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Janet Lawrence)