BRUSSELS — Amid profound disagreements about how to handle Europe’s escalating refugee crisis, European Union leaders forced through a plan Tuesday to distribute asylum seekers across the continent despite dissent from Central European nations.
The difficulty of the negotiations was illustrated by a decision to hold a highly unusual majority vote on the issue. The consensus-driven 28-nation bloc rarely adopts controversial policies without unanimous approval. Now Europe will face the prospect of sending thousands of asylum seekers to nations that have explicitly rejected them, raising powerful questions about the future of the fractious economic and political alliance.
All but five E.U. interior ministers who gathered at a Brussels conclave voted in favor of the plan to spread 120,000 asylum seekers across Europe. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania all voted against it, according to Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec. Finland abstained, he said on Twitter.
“Very soon we will see that the emperor has no clothes,” Chovanec said. “Common sense lost today.”
The E.U. was spurred to act by the plight of the men, women and children who have been shunted from one European nation to another in recent weeks, a grim procession of human need in one of the richest regions in the world. But with crowds of people flooding wealthy Germany on Tuesday, the country’s ambition to be Europe’s haven of last resort appeared to be ebbing.
“We are doing this out of solidarity and responsibility, but also out of our own interest,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said after the meeting. He said the agreement would “prevent more people who are currently in Greece from coming to Germany.”
Germany alone expects up to 1 million asylum seekers this year.
Tuesday’s decision will allow E.U. leaders who are meeting Wednesday to focus on broader strategic issues to combat the crisis, such as bolstering their borders so that fewer migrants could slip in undetected and increasing support for struggling refugee camps in the nations surrounding Syria.
The effort to ease one of Europe’s worst humanitarian crises in decades has split the continent between rich nations such as Germany and Sweden, which have wanted binding commitments to take in refugees, and poorer Eastern European ones, which reject any requirements.
Under the terms of the plan approved Tuesday, 23 E.U. nations would pledge to take a certain number of asylum seekers in the coming months. For now, they would be distributed from the frontline nations of Italy and Greece. Of the 120,000 people to be resettled under the plan, 66,000 slots were allocated immediately, and the additional 54,000 will be decided later on.
The plan calls for Germany, France and Spain to take the most asylum seekers. Some will be sent to countries with leaders who are actively hostile to refugees, such as Hungary, which will have to take 1,294 people under the plan. Leaders there rejected an earlier E.U. proposal to be included alongside Italy and Greece among the countries that would distribute the asylum seekers across Europe. The reasoning, they said, was that they were not a frontline nation.
Germany’s national railway company on Tuesday announced that it was suspending rail service to Austria because its trains have been overwhelmed with refugees. It was just the latest example of national infrastructure apparently unable to meet the challenge.
The E.U. interior ministers met Tuesday for the second time in eight days, after their previous meeting broke up in acrimony. Many poorer nations say that they do not want to take in the refugees — and that any refugees assigned to them would quickly move across Europe’s borderless frontiers to the richer nations anyway.
Amid the bitter negotiations, 6,000 people continue to arrive in Europe every day, according to the U.N. refugee agency, up from 4,200 a day in August. That means the talks essentially are devoted to addressing the impact of just 20 days of arrivals.
“This is a crisis of political will combined with lack of European unity that is resulting in management mayhem,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
Hungary and its Central European neighbors have said that the E.U. plan would only spur an additional flow of refugees from the Middle East. They have instead advocated bolstering Europe’s borders. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken a particularly hard-line stance, denouncing migrants who he said are “besieging Europe.”
“Immigrants are now not just pounding on our doors, but are breaking them down on top of us,” he told Hungary’s parliament on Monday before it approved measures to deploy troops to the Hungarian border.
Journalists on the Hungarian frontier on Tuesday described seeing gun-mounted Humvees fanning out along the border. The country is extending a razor-wire border fence to include Croatia and Romania. A 108-mile stretch along the Serbian border was completed last week.
There were major challenges to the workability of the E.U. plan approved Tuesday, including few guarantees that asylum seekers would actually stay in the country assigned to them. In a borderless Europe, there are no checks between nations. Migrants face losing benefits if they leave one country for another, and they would not be able to obtain them in another nation. But, for example, few people want to stay in Poland when Germany’s high wages lure them next door.
The agreement also parcels out just a fraction of the people streaming into Europe. According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 477,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year via often-dangerous Mediterranean crossings. That number increases every day. In addition to the 120,000 people subject to Tuesday’s accord, an additional 40,000 slots were agreed to earlier in the summer.
Despite Europe’s divisions, some refugee advocates said policymakers slowly seem to be coming to terms with the crisis.
“What is widely acknowledged now is that the conditions in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are going to become untenable for a large number of people,” said Madeline Garlick, a guest researcher at the Center for Migration Law at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We are further than were some time ago.”