EU leaders reached an agreement on the need to relocate and resettle 60,000 refugees across Europe over the next two years, after more than five hours of acrimonious debate.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker failed in his high-profile push for mandatory quotas for the distribution of asylum-seekers, after opposition from mainly Eastern European countries proved impossible to overcome.
Juncker clashed openly with European Council President Donald Tusk, who along with many member states proposed keeping the quota system voluntary. But when the summit ended at 3 am Brussels time, they focused on the fact that Europe was taking action.
“I’m not particularly concerned about whether this is voluntary or mandatory,” Juncker told reporters. “The result will be the same anyway.”
Juncker called the agreement “a modest effort” but said it still represented a step forward in responding to the wave of migrants arriving in southern Europe.
Tusk said the agreement showed Europe’s commitment to addressing the migration crisis: “In our search for a new European consensus on migration, today’s decisions on return policy are the first step.”
EU leaders spent much of the night clashing over a controversial proposal — put forward in May by the European Commission — to relocate 40,000 asylum-seekers now in Italy and Greece to other EU countries based on a system of mandatory quotas.
That proposal had tempers flaring at several points Thursday night, sources said, as proponents of the mandatory system, led by Juncker and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, fought to hold their ground against efforts led by Tusk and several member states intent a voluntary approach.
The tension was evident during the post-summit press conference. Juncker opened his remarks by saying that he did not appreciate the way Tusk had run the meeting.
“It’s not ideal working conditions, neither for yourself, certainly not for me,” Juncker said. “I protest against this working method. I am still awake but tired and when you’re tired you don’t necessarily take the best decisions.”
Italy’s Renzi lashed out at other EU leaders for not showing enough commitment to helping with the crisis.
“If this is your idea of Europe you can keep it,” Renzi said during the meeting, according to an EU source who overheard the exchange.“Either there’s solidarity or we are wasting time… If you want a voluntary agreement, you can cancel the whole thing; we’ll do it by ourselves.”
Renzi also implied that by suggesting a voluntary approach Tusk was showing too much favoritism to eastern European countries, which have long opposed the mandatory quotas. Tusk said earlier Thursday that the mandatory approach would never be approved.
The Italian premier was backed up by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who told the leaders over dinner — according to Italian newspaper La Repubblica — that if they could not show solidarity among themselves on migrant quotas, “then we are not the great Europe which can go about the world negotiating.”
After the meeting, Renzi told reporters, “We have been saying since day one that the deal could have been more ambitious. We are talking about 40,000 people, but it’s a first step to say that finally we have an European policy and not just a single states’ one.”
French President François Hollande offered perhaps the best synopsis of the meeting, saying, “It was long because we knew these questions were touchy.”
The fight over the migration proposals came after the Greek situation had already played havoc with the evening’s schedule.
The summit meeting began on Thursday afternoon just as talks on the Greek financial crisis, also in Brussels, broke down with no deal in sight. Despite the determination of many EU leaders not to spend the summit talking about Greece, they found themselves unable to avoid it earlier in the evening.
Eurogroup Chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi joined the meeting to brief EU leaders, which delayed the scheduled debates — migration and U.K. proposals for EU reform — by two hours.
Sources said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attempted several times to discuss the bailout issue during the meeting but was rebuffed by other leaders, who insisted it be dealt with at ministerial level in yet another Eurogroup meeting set for Saturday.
A planned presentation by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on proposals for EU reform aimed at avoiding a British exit from the Union became almost an afterthought in the midst of the rancorous migration debate.
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Cameron had already met with most of the other leaders in the room to lay out his agenda ahead of the meeting, and no decisions or negotiations were planned on them for Thursday night. He just laid out his proposals and the other leaders agreed to take them under consideration in the coming months.
“I’m delighted,“ Cameron said after the meeting. “The process is now properly under way.”
That, at least, was one part of the summit that went according to plan — apart from the hour at which it occurred.
Maïa de la Baume, Zeke Turner, Ryan Heath, and Quentin Ariès contributed to this article.