Five years after Europe's migrant crisis, Brussels unveiled on Wednesday a plan for sharing the responsibility for asylum seekers among members under a "compulsory solidarity mechanism", in an effort to rally skeptical states such as Austria.
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposes that EU member states who do not want to volunteer to house more migrants can instead take charge of sending those whose asylum requests are rejected back to their homelands. That in an effort to also reduce pressure on Italy and Greece, where most arrivals land.
Johansson wants the 27 member states to commit to sharing the burden of handling asylum claims from migrants arriving on the bloc's shores. "It's obvious to everybody that ad hoc solidarity or voluntary solidarity is not enough. That has been proven for many years now," she said. "It has to be mandatory."
"Europe has to move away from ad hoc solutions", European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "We want to live up to our values. And at the same time face the challenges of a globalised world," she said, warning that old system "no longer works".
The proposal disappointed migrants' rights activists and refugee agencies, who had hoped for compulsory quotas for refugee settlement and an end to a "Fortress Europe" ringed by squalid refugee camps. "It's a compromise between xenophobia and cowardice," tweeted Francois Gemenne, a professor of environmental geopolitics.
But the plan is likely, nevertheless, to face a rough reception in national capitals, many of which are keen to see the EU take ownership of the problem, without wanting to take charge of large numbers of refugees on their own soil.
"It won't work like this," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told AFP this week, rejecting the idea of mandatory quotas for refugees for all EU countries. "We find that the distribution in Europe (of asylum seekers) has failed and many states reject this. It won't work like this," the 34-year-old conservative leader said. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also oppose compulsory relocation, and torpedoed such plans after the 2015 migration crisis.
But von der Leyen had promised another ambitious plan, with an accelerated process to remove migrants who are unlikely to obtain protection. Those coming from countries with a lower than 20 percent positive response rate to asylum applications, such as Tunisia or Morocco, will be processed at the border and within 12 weeks.
And if a country is subject to migratory "pressure", and believes that it cannot take care of migrants, it can request the activation of a "compulsory solidarity mechanism" by the Commission.
All states will then be called upon to contribute, according to their economic weight and population, but they will have the choice between receiving asylum seekers, "sponsoring" the return of a migrant who does not have the right to stay or helping to build reception centres.
'Europe has to move away from ad hoc solutions' on migration, Ursula Von Der Leyen says 00:33
Dublin Regulation with a 'window dressing'
In the event of a crisis similar to that in 2015 - when more than a million refugees arrived, compared to only 140,000 per year now - the choice for a state is reduced to taking charge of the relocation of refugees or the return of rejected migrants. But if an EU country fails to return migrants to their country of origin within eight months, it must take them in - an idea that a European source admitted would be hard for smaller countries to accept.
Von der Leyen said last week the proposal would replace the "Dublin Regulation" with "a new European migration governance system".
The Dublin Regulation states that asylum claims must be processed by the migrant's country of arrival, a rule that has led to bitter squabbles between the southern coastal member states where seaborne migrants arrive, and wealthier northern countries where most prefer to head.
In the Commission's proposal, the country responsible for the application could be the nation in which a migrant has a brother or sister or in which he or she has worked or studied. Any country that issued a visa to a migrant will have to take care of any asylum application.
Otherwise, however, the country of arrival is still responsible.
Observers said the plan as unveiled maintains more or less the same principle as Dublin, with some flexibility. "It all looks like window dressing, it's more or less Dublin is dead, long live Dublin," said migration researcher Yves Pascouau of the Jacques Delors Institute. Marissa Ryan of aid agency Oxfam said the plan "bowed to pressure from EU governments whose only objective is to decrease the number of people granted protection in Europe."
Kurz said he welcomed that the European Commission was addressing the topic of asylum and migration. "We can only solve this topic all together... Better protection of the (EU's) outer borders, a joined fight against smugglers, but also joined aid where it is needed (in countries where refugees come from), that is the path that is needed," he said.
Kurz, pushing to make his mark in European politics, has also sought allies on other topics, such as when he worked with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark - as the so-called "Frugal Four" - to oppose direct EU aid to coronavirus-hit countries as proposed by Germany and France.
"The European Union is more than just Germany and France... As a small or medium-sized state of course one has to always look for alliances, and in an EU with 27 member states one can only assert ideas if there are others that support them," he told AFP in an office in the chancellery.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)