EU ministers are considering a watered down plan to relocate 120,000 refugees throughout the bloc, which drops binding quotas and leaves Hungary out of the scheme, sources said Monday.
The softer stance emerged on the eve of a new emergency meeting in Brussels of the 28 EU interior ministers, who last week failed to agree on a European Commission plan for compulsory quotas for refugees fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"Whether voluntary or mandatory, that is an artificial debate," a source from Luxembourg, which holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters, despite Commission officials insisting that they still want compulsory quotas.
Another Luxembourg source said the word "mandatory" will not appear in the draft document that will go before the ministers when they meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss how many refugees each country will take.
Hopes of a unanimous deal last week collapsed in the face of opposition from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, officials said.
With populist parties exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment, many eastern countries argued that a Europe-wide relocation plan made little sense for refugees who preferred to settle in wealthier northern European nations.
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The original plan envisaged quotas for the relocation to other EU states of 54,000 asylum seekers from Hungary, 50,400 from Greece and 15,600 from Italy.
But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has insisted that by being included in the plan, his country would be erroneously confirmed as a frontline state for refugee arrivals.
He insists that many of the migrants are coming from Greece and should have been registered there first and kept there under EU rules.
"It is established that Hungary will not appear in the draft as a beneficiary country," a Luxembourg source told AFP. "However, it will have to join the solidarity" by hosting refugees from Greece and Italy, the source added.
The figure of 120,000 to be relocated will remain in the draft, but it is not immediately clear which countries will now benefit from the relocation of the 54,000 asylum seekers that were originally earmarked in Hungary, sources said.
One proposal is for Italy and Greece to benefit, while a second is for other countries along the Western Balkans route, such as Croatia and Slovenia, to be given relief.
Despite failing to reach a deal on the larger figure, the EU ministers last week formally approved a plan first aired in May to relocate 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy.