BRUSSELS: The European Union pushed through a controversial deal to relocate 120,000 refugees on Tuesday, riding roughshod over fierce opposition from eastern states in a major blow to unity within the bloc.
In a move that further sours regional ties as Europe wrestles with its biggest migration crisis since World War II, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia all voted against the plan while Finland abstained.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico insisted he would not accept the “diktat” from Brussels, under which EU countries must take a share of new arrivals from overstretched frontline states like Greece and Italy.
Interior ministers briskly voted through the deal on the eve of a crisis summit of EU leaders, but in a rare step, it was by a majority vote instead of unanimity.
Speaking shortly after the decision, French President Francois Hollande said that Europe had “taken on its responsibilities” by agreeing to relocate 120,000 refugees around the bloc.
“We will show that we can do this, and at the same time have rules. That is taking responsibility, that is solidarity,” he said on a visit to London.
Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the plan was forced through despite opposition because it was an “emergency situation”.
“If we had not done this, Europe would have been even more divided,” he told a press conference.
Europe is under increasing pressure over its handling of a huge influx of hundreds of thousand of migrants this year, many of them fleeing conflict and repression in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
“We have no choice but to leave,” said Abdullah, a 35-year-old father-of-two from war-ravaged Aleppo in Syria who has worked for three years to save up the money to travel to Europe.
The EU’s new relocation plans were outlined after pictures of a Syrian refugee toddler lying on a Turkish beach sparked global outrage.
But the proposal has opened fresh rifts in a bloc already reeling from the Greek debt crisis.
The crisis has raised fears the EU’s cherished Schengen passport-free zone could collapse as countries close their borders to stem the flow of migrants, many of whom are heading for Germany.
Officials said the relocation deal covered 66,000 refugees who would be moved from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, plus another 54,000 who had previously been earmarked to be relocated from Hungary before it refused to back the plan.
It also involves the creation of “hotspots” – special centres in frontline states for receiving and processing asylum seekers and separating economic migrants from refugees fleeing conflict.
Last week, ministers approved a separate plan dating from May for relocating 40,00 refugees.
Hungary and its eastern partners oppose the plan because they say Brussels has no right to make them take in thousands of people, and to do so amounts to a violation of their national sovereignty.
“Very soon we will find that the emperor is naked. Common sense has lost today!” Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec tweeted after the vote.
In Bratislava, Fico said he was prepared to break the EU’s rules rather than accept the proposal.
“I would rather go to an infringement than to accept this diktat,” he said, quoted by Slovakia’s leading SME daily.
However Poland, which had previously opposed the plans, eventually voted in favour.
Britain, which has exercised its right to opt-out of the plan, on Tuesday confirmed the arrival of the first tranche of 20,000 refugees it is taking in from refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Ireland and Denmark also have a right to opt out but have said they will take some of the relocated refugees.
Earlier, the UN refugee agency had warned it was the “last chance” for Europe to act, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon urging leaders across the bloc to “show leadership and compassion”.
Budapest has taken the toughest stance on the crisis, erecting razor-wire barriers along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, and on Monday giving border troops the right to use rubber bullets, tear gas and net guns.
And Croatia has asked Serbia to restart directing migrants towards Hungary and Romania.
Meanwhile, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn said it would suspend key services to and from Austria and Hungary until October 4.
With the relocation vote out of the way, Wednesday’s emergency EU summit will focus on strengthening the bloc’s external borders, as well as giving extra funding to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and UN agencies.
But there may trouble ahead as Greece will likely face pressure to accept outside help in managing its borders — renewing sovereignty concerns in Athens just months after it was forced to accept a huge eurozone bailout.