Young Syrian refugees stand in dusty ground in Turkey after fleeing war-torn homeland. File photo
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French Prime Minister Manuel Valls rejected on Saturday the idea of a permanent quota system for distributing refugees across Europe, putting Paris at odds with Germany ahead of a summit to discuss the EU crisis over migration.
Speaking to reporters at a security conference in Munich, Valls said France would stick to its pledge to take on 30,000 of the 160,000 refugees European countries have agreed to divide among themselves, but would not accept additional numbers.
“We won’t take any more,” Valls said. He expressed admiration for Germany’s readiness to take on more refugees, but added: “France never said ‘come to France’.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to push European partners to accept so-called “contingents” of refugees at a meeting on Thursday in Brussels, shortly before European Union leaders come together for their summit.
Cobbling together a coalition of countries ready to accept more asylum seekers over time is crucial to Merkel’s efforts to convince Turkey to stem the tide of refugees fleeing countries in the Middle East, notably Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will attend the pre-summit meeting.
“France rejects this,” Valls said of the permanent quota mechanism. He said France had received 80,000 asylum applications last year and was struggling with youth radicalization and high unemployment.
In another sign of Europe’s deep divisions over the influx of migrants and refugees, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said Germany had protested against plans by eastern European leaders to help Macedonia and Bulgaria seal their border with Greece, the entry point into the EU for many migrants.
Leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, known as the Visegrad Group, meet on Monday in Prague with their Macedonian and Bulgarian counterparts and could offer them manpower and other aid, diplomats said on Friday.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – prominent social democrats in the government led by the conservative Merkel – have sent a letter to European Socialist leaders calling for a common approach, a message simultaneously sent to the central European governments.
“Such measures must be agreed together and may not be unilaterally directed against one member state,” the letter said.
Closure of Greece’s northern borders could strand migrants in Greece, which has been struggling to protect its sea borders as the huge influx of migrants and refugees arrive via Turkey.
“We want an agreement among the Visegrad Four countries that if Greece is not working, and it’s not working, it makes more sense to invest money into the protection of borders between Greece and Macedonia, Bulgaria and other countries,” Fico said.
“We received a demarche (saying) how do we dare as V4, Bulgaria and Macedonia to discuss protection of external borders. Germany has filed a protest with our deputy foreign affairs minister because of this summit, saying we need to seek another way,” he said.
The Czech government tried to defuse the tension, saying the Visegrad group supported cooperation with Turkey, NATO’s engagement in the Aegean Sea and was also ready to increase aid for Greece as well Macedonia and Bulgaria.
“We therefore consider help for Macedonia to be a natural part of a European solution of the migration crisis,” State Secretary for European affairs Tomas Prouza said.
As the European Union gave notice to Athens on Friday that its failure to control hundreds of thousands of refugees landing via Turkey over the past year will see a long-term suspension of some passport-free travel in Europe, EU officials said they expected more border tightening by Greece’s Balkan neighbors.
Concern at a “domino effect” of border closures rippling down the Balkan peninsula to Greece and leaving large numbers of Syrians, Iraqis and others stranded in some of Europe’s poorest countries, has prompted the EU to offer aid and cooperation to those states, all of them candidates to join the bloc.