PARIS — The European Union announced a plan Wednesday to deal with a flood of asylum seekers, requiring member states to accept certain numbers of them under a quota system and imposing steep fines if the countries do not.
The much-anticipated plan is aimed at revamping Europe’s controversial regulations on handling the continent’s migrant crisis as nations struggle to cope with the largest number of displaced people since World War II.
European leaders have been desperately seeking a solution for months. In 2015 alone, more than 1 million people poured into the continent, most fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Many of them are stranded in makeshift border camps, seeking to enter countries that are unlikely to admit them anytime soon. In northern Greece, more than 10,000 migrants and refugees are stranded at Idomeni, trying to enter the Balkans. In northern France, thousands are similarly stuck in a ramshackle camp called the “Jungle” on the English Channel, from where many make illicit attempts to reach Britain however they can.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, a quota system would require most of the European Union’s 28 member states to accept a certain number of migrants from Mediterranean front-line countries such as Greece and Italy, which were overwhelmed with migrant landfalls last year.
Unlike previous efforts, this proposal has teeth: Failure to comply with resettlement requirements triggers a penalty of about $287,000 per migrant.
For months, the idea of a quota system — scaled to a member state’s population and wealth — has divided Europe. It is favored by the European Commission, the EU executive body in Brussels, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. But it is vehemently opposed by Central European leaders, many of whom have recently embraced anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Muslim, platforms.
Wednesday’s threat of such high penalties has only served to fan the flames of these leaders’ opposition.
“I am somewhat unpleasantly surprised that the commission is returning to play a proposal upon which there is no agreement,” Lubomir Zaoralek, the Czech foreign minister, told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“It sounds like an idea announced during April Fools’ Day,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski of Poland said.
“Regarding the fines proposed by the European Commission, it is blackmailing,” said Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister. “The quota concept is a dead-end street, and I would like to ask the commission not to run into this dead-end street anymore.”
As part of the announcement Wednesday in Brussels, European leaders also proposed visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe, a controversial provision meant to reward Turkey for its assistance in accepting migrants sent back from Europe and, in general, in stabilizing a chaotic situation in the Mediterranean.
But many European leaders see the provision as appeasement of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose government has come under fire for human rights abuses in recent months.
For leaders in that camp, the EU has been too willing to sacrifice its humanitarian values for the sake of solving its domestic problems. Turkey seeks admittance to the bloc, and they worry that its assistance in the migrant crisis might allow the country to bypass certain standards.
In any case, Wednesday’s proposals are a long way from being enacted. The quota system, for instance, will require approval from the EU’s assembly and constituent capitals, which is likely to take months.
By then, the composition of the European Union itself could well look different. A British referendum on whether to remain in the union is scheduled for June 23, and, despite recent public intervention by President Obama, two polls this week suggest that the “leave” campaign could prevail.