EU interior ministers meeting Thursday struggled to reach an agreement on a long-stalled revision of the bloc's rules to share the hosting of asylum seekers and migrants more equitably.
Officials and diplomats said a deal was closer than ever after years of wrangling but efforts to get majority backing for the proposals hung in the balance as last-ditch negotiations in Luxembourg dragged over the divisive issue.
Italy and Greece, dealing with the biggest number of arrivals, said they could not support the text on the table.
Malta, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and Slovakia also refused to back the agreement.
Diplomats said a new compromise was being circulated to EU member states and said there was a fresh push to get more countries on board.
The initial proposal at the meeting called for compulsory help between EU countries, but with an option of doing that in one of two ways.
The priority is for EU countries to share the hosting of asylum-seekers, taking in many that arrive in nations on the bloc's outer rim, mainly Greece and Italy.
Nations that refuse would instead be required to pay a sum of 20,000 euros ($21,000) to the countries hosting them.
A preliminary agreement of the EU's 27 members on that basis would open the way for negotiations with the European Parliament on legislation that could be adopted before European elections in June next year.
The difficult reform has jumped up the bloc's agenda as the number of asylum seekers rises, after a pause caused by travel restrictions during the Covid pandemic.
"It's almost three years since I presented this huge proposal and it's been a marathon," said EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson as talks began.
"We have maybe 100 metres left, so we are so close to actually finding an agreement."
- 'Last mile' -
The European Commission put forward its suggestion for a new migration and asylum pact in 2020 based on a quota system.
But that plan quickly hit the buffers after refusals from Hungary, Poland and other countries that objected to any requirement to take them in.
Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of this month, presented two compromise texts: one that called for the hosting-or-cash approach by all member states, and the other on asylum procedures on the EU's external borders.
That second text would oblige member states to put in place fast-track procedures at the borders for arrivals from countries deemed as safe in order to facilitate their return.
"We are, in my opinion, so close that there is no acceptable reason not to walk the last mile," said Sweden's migration minister Maria Malmer Stenergard.
Oxfam, a charity that aids refugees, was critical of the direction of the talks as EU countries take harsher steps to stem asylum seekers.
"These proposals will not fix the chronic deficiencies in the EU asylum system. Instead, they signal the EU's desire to barricade Europe from asylum seekers," said Oxfam migration expert Stephanie Pope.
© Agence France-Presse
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