— Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, called on the bloc on Wednesday to accept 160,000 migrants, imploring leaders not to remain indifferent in the face of one of Europe’s toughest humanitarian challenges in decades.
“Turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people, that is not Europe,” said Mr. Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg
. Coming against the backdrop of anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Hungary
, which is building a 110-mile fence on its border with Serbia to try to keep migrants out, Mr. Juncker appealed to Europeans in personal terms.
In his first State of the European Union speech in Strasbourg, France
, he urged Europeans to remember their ancestors who sought refuge from religious persecution, war and famine, and he warned that Europe
had a historical imperative not to look the other way.
“Let us be clear and honest with our often-worried citizens,” Mr. Juncker said, pointing to the root causes of the crisis. “As long as there is war in Syria
and terror in Libya
, the refugee crisis will not simply go away.”
Many of the migrants are believed to be fleeing war in the Middle East
, and he said the sight of people sleeping in train stations and on beaches was unacceptable and must be addressed as winter approaches.
The centerpiece of Mr. Juncker’s speech to the European Parliament was his formal announcement of an emergency plan, which would be binding on a majority of member states, to spread the burden of accommodating 160,000 people, many of whom are flowing into Greece
, Hungary and Italy
Facing a migration crisis that has stoked angry passions, European leaders in June failed to agree on a vague pledge to spread even 40,000 migrants around the Continent, and it remained unclear whether a quota of 160,000 people, even if accepted, would be sufficient to accommodate a large influx of migrants to Europe
alone has said it expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
European governments have been squabbling over how to deal with asylum seekers, and Mr. Juncker’s comments matched a theme expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who earlier in the day repeated her call for European leaders to reach a binding agreement on the distribution of them throughout the bloc.
“The bell tolls, the time has come,” Mr. Juncker said. “We have to look at the huge issues with which the European Union is now confronted” because it is “not in a good situation.”
There is “a lack of union in this European Union,” he continued.
“That has to change,” he added.
Opposition to the emergency plan arose almost immediately after Mr. Juncker ended his address. “Let’s work out what each country can do to help those fleeing for their lives,” Syed Kamall, the leader of the British Conservative Party in the European Parliament, told other lawmakers.
“But let’s be clear: Telling countries what to do, forcing a plan on them, only risks more finger-pointing,” he said. “It might make some of you feel better, but I fear it could actually make the crisis worse.”
But Mr. Juncker’s plans drew praise from a number of his political opponents, including Ulrike Lunacek, a lawmaker in the Greens bloc of the European Parliament who represents Austria
. Mr. Juncker’s calls for “solidarity with refugees” and for European countries “to finally step up to the plate” were “worthy of respect,” Ms. Lunacek said.
She also praised Mr. Juncker for having called for a change to European rules to allow people who have applied for asylum to work and earn money while their applications were being processed.
Mr. Juncker used his speech to denounce the leaders of some European Union member states who have been unwelcoming to migrants, and he said that allowing more of them would help the economy, rather than damage it, by adding young workers to the bloc’s aging work force.
He highlighted efforts of countries like Jordan and Lebanon
to accommodate a larger number of migrants than their richer European neighbors.
“We can build walls; we can build fences,” he said, alluding to measures Hungary has taken. “But imagine for a second if it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay; there is no wall you would not climb.”
Mr. Juncker asked home affairs ministers of European Union member states to approve his plan to accept the 160,000 at their next meeting, on Monday.
“That’s the number that Europeans have to take in charge, and have to take in their arms,” Mr. Juncker said.
“Action is what is needed for the time being,” he continued.
There is no guarantee that ministers will accept that plan. European Union leaders failed to agree on far more modest quotas at the summit meeting in June, and many governments must contend with the growing support of populist or anti-immigrant groups.
Countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary are likely to continue resisting any binding or permanent quotas.
But the discovery last month of more than 70 dead migrants in a truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway and the photograph of a young Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach in Turkey
have increased the resolve of policy makers like Mr. Juncker to ensure that Europe does a better job of managing the influx.
, which had been hostile to permanent quotas, now supports Germany on the need to share the burden of taking in asylum seekers among all European countries.
The plan would require states to pay a small percentage of their gross domestic product, amounting to 0.002 percent of it, to help finance the efforts of neighboring countries if they cannot participate.
Any such temporary exemption would last 12 months and be decided “case by case,” Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, told a news conference in Strasbourg after Mr. Juncker’s speech.
“This is not about picking and choosing because of people’s ethnicity, their religion or the color of their skin,” said Mr. Timmermans, referring to the payment option.
Only a country “in dire trouble because of a natural catastrophe or another reason and can therefore not take its fair share for a given period of time” would be eligible for the option, said Mr. Timmermans, adding that nations should not be allowed to “buy themselves out of solidarity.”
In his bid to win support from even more member states, Mr. Juncker leveled thinly veiled criticism at Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned that Christian traditions in Europe are under threat from newcomers from Muslim countries.
Last week, Mr. Orban said that Hungarians “do not want a large number of Muslim people” in their country, and Mr. Juncker suggested that such an approach was completely unacceptable.
“Europe has made the mistake in the past of distinguishing between Jews, Christians, Muslims,” Mr. Juncker said. “There is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees.”
To speed up the processing of asylum applications, Mr. Juncker said the European Commission planned to propose a list of countries that are deemed safe, to which migrants originating from those countries would be sent back. He noted that the list should include candidate countries for accession to the European Union, like the western Balkans.
Mr. Juncker said that Europe should learn from its history and appeared to point a moral finger at European nations demonizing asylum seekers from Muslim countries.
He also mentioned the large number of people from Ireland
and Scotland who had emigrated to the United States
, suggesting that immigration was a source of cultural richness rather than an impediment.
Addressing the root causes of the migration crisis, he also proposed that the European Union create an emergency fund of 1.8 billion euros, or more than $2 billion, to help African countries.
In Germany, Ms. Merkel has repeatedly emphasized the importance of equitable contributions from all members of the European Union in addressing the migration crisis.
“The current refugee crisis cannot be handled solely at the national level,” Ms. Merkel said in a speech to Parliament on Wednesday. “It is a challenge for the European Union, for every member of the European Union.”
Ms. Merkel said that European Union member states needed to agree on a way to distribute the arrivals equitably across the bloc.
Over the past week, Ms. Merkel’s government has taken measures to help the thousands of people pouring into Germany. A package valued at €6 billion was announced on Monday, and legislative changes affecting how asylum seekers’s applications are processed and how to get them into the work force more quickly are expected to come to a vote in Parliament within a month.
“We need to change,” she said, “and it won’t help anyone to point fingers and exchange blame over who didn’t do what, but we all need to go at this so that we can help the people arriving in our country.”