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German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere attends a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch(reuters_tickers)
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is looking at new proposals to handle asylum seekers arriving on its soil, hoping to end more than a year of wrangling that has undermined its unity, officials and diplomats said.
EU leaders have given themselves until mid-year to come to an agreement on the stalled reform of asylum rules. They are at loggerheads over how to handle an influx of refugees that has triggered rows, notably between Germany and Mediterranean states on the one hand, and easterners Poland and Hungary on the other.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said after talks with EU counterparts this week they were looking at a three-tier system for low, high and very high volumes of arrivals.
In the first instance, the current rules would mostly apply, including a key proviso that the first EU country through which a person arrives in the bloc must handle their case.
This is precisely what led to the build-up of an excessive strain on the Mediterranean EU states during a 2015 influx. Hence, diplomats said of the latest proposals on the table, for times of high arrivals that rule would no longer apply.
The EU would have a mix of tools from relocation of asylum seekers to other countries in the bloc, to assistance in cash and equipment, or offering expert help.
"There should be a level of acceptance in every area. It's not a question that one member state might opt out from a particular, important area," said Carmelo Abela, interior minister of Malta, the current chair of EU meetings.
GERMANY VS POLAND
Around 1.5 million refugees and migrants reached Europe in 2015 and 2016, overrunning frontline states Greece and Italy, and mostly heading to the wealthy Germany, Austria and Sweden.
These countries called on other EU states to help by taking some of the asylum seekers in. But Poland and Hungary refuse, instead offering other assistance.
Poland's nationalist-minded, eurosceptic government strongly rejects any compulsory sharing of asylum seekers.
Berlin has threatened to go for majority rather than unanimous voting on the asylum reform, which would override Polish and Hungarian objections. Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Warsaw next month to press for a deal.
But the Polish government has also used pressure from Brussels and Berlin to beef up its own support among anti-migration and eurosceptic constituencies.
"Germany should know that the more they push, the more consolidation they get in Poland," one Polish diplomatic source said.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Ralph Boulton)