European Union countries have a reached a major deal to revamp the bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

It represents the first breakthrough of its kind after years of divisive and bitter debates that have pitted capitals against each other.

The agreement paves the way for introducing new rules to collectively manage the reception and relocation of asylum seekers. Last year, the EU received more than 962,000 asylum applications, the highest figure since 2016.

The rules were put to a vote during a meeting of home affairs ministers in Luxembourg, which had been preceded by an atmosphere of optimism that appeared to increase the odds of a positive outcome.

But the talks prove hard and laborious: ministers and their deputies spent virtually the whole day haggling over nitty-gritty details and rewriting compromise texts.

Sweden, the country that holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, pushed its fellow member states to stay put and continue negotiations until a wide consensus was found.

In the end, the new rules were endorsed by a margin wider than anticipated.

Italy, a frontline country that has declared a state of emergency to cope with a steep increase in new arrivals, chose to vote in favour. During the meeting, Rome’s position was seen as the deal-maker to ensure a qualified majority.

“I was not sure this day would come,” said Maria Malmer Stenergard, Sweden’s minister of migration, celebrating the moment amid applause from her colleagues. “It’s a big day for us.”

The rules endorsed on Thursday stem from the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a holistic proposal presented by the European Commission back in September 2020.

The pact’s most innovative element is a system of “mandatory solidarity” that would give member states two main options in times of migratory pressure.

  • Accept a number of relocated asylum-seekers.
  • Pay for the return of rejected applicants to their country of origin.

The options are of “equal value” and give governments enough room for manoeuvre, Malmer Stenergard said.

“We will have simpler, clearer and shorter procedures,” the minister noted. 

This solidarity mechanism, together with new rules on border procedures, are the two pieces of legislation that were voted upon on Thursday.

The political agreement will now allow the EU Council to start negotiations with the European Parliament with the goal of wrapping up the legislation before next year’s EU elections.

The ultimate objective is to do away with the ad-hoc crisis management mode that has been in place since the 2015 migration crisis and has proven woefully inadequate to cope with a challenge that exceeds national borders.

This article has been updated to include more details about the agreement.

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