BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union took its first steps Wednesday toward a fundamental reform of its defective migration policy, which has heaped huge pressure on some nations like Greece as over a million migrants and refugees surged into the continent over the past year.
Yet almost immediately, the East-West fissure within the EU over migration was laid bare. Nations like Germany and Greece welcomed the plan by the EU's executive Commission that seeks to amend the current principle under which the first nation where a migrant arrives is forced to process their asylum request and temporarily shelter them.
The Czech Republic, which chairs the Visegrad group of four eastern EU nations, voiced opposition to any plan that would mean each EU nation has to take a set number of asylum-seekers.
The Commission is proposing a reform in which a "distribution key" to spread asylum applicants around the EU would be a key element, either as part of a whole new system or as an addition to the current one. But efforts to distribute the recent influx of refugees already caused serious friction with many EU nations.
Migratory pressures over the past year drove a stream of hundreds of thousands of people up from the Mediterranean toward northern nations like Germany and Sweden in chaotic circumstances which turned current EU rules into a mockery.
"The current crisis has shown the present system is not working," EU Vice President Frans Timmermans said, adding small nations like Greece could never have dealt with such a task to process so many asylum claims. "This is neither fair nor sustainable."
The Commission said in a document to EU institutions that "significant structural weaknesses and shortcomings" in the current system were rife, which placed "a disproportionate responsibility" on some nations, while others, mostly eastern European members, sought to shield their countries from having to carry much of the refugee burden.
In the face of such shortcomings, nations like Greece and Germany quickly welcomed the Commission's proposals. Showing the sensitivity of the issue though, the Commission said its proposals offered only "options" on which the member states and the EU parliamentary groups should build further.
And Timmermans insisted that a logical extension of common EU policies, like a central European system to deal with asylum claims was still too controversial. "In political terms, it is not realistic to talk about this today."
The bloc's inefficient rules on how to handle migration along with its slow decision-making once the refugee crisis hit last year have been fodder for critics who portray the EU as an inefficient, outmoded institution.
Even French President Francois Hollande, a staunch defender of the EU, was forced to admit Wednesday that the bloc's biggest problem is its slow decision-making process — whether in the financial crisis, the fight against terrorism or a common response to the refugee crisis.
In an interview in the German daily Bild, Hollande said "in the end (Europe) always succeeds in finding a solution ... but we have to pay a high price for the lost time."
More than 53,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece since Austria and the Balkan nations north of Greece — Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia — closed their land borders last month.
Prior to that, hundreds of thousands fleeing war and poverty at home crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, then went overland to wealthy European nations.
To stem that flow and break the Turkish smuggling rings ferrying migrants to Greece, the EU reached a deal with Turkey last month. Now those arriving on Greek islands from March 20 onwards who do not apply for asylum in Greece or whose application is rejected will be deported back to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, another Syrian there will be relocated to a European country.
The deportations began Monday with 202 people being sent back from Greece to Turkey. But an increase in the number of asylum applications by those earmarked for potential deportation have led to a pause in the returns, with no more deportations planned until Friday.