BRUSSELS — European Union ministers approved a plan Tuesday that would compel member countries to take in 120,000 migrants seeking refuge on the Continent — but only after overruling four countries in Central Europe.

The plan to apportion the migrants, still only a small fraction of those flowing into Europe, was approved by home affairs and interior ministers of the member countries after a vigorous debate.

Continue reading below

In a departure from normal procedures that emphasize consensus, particularly on questions of national sovereignty, the ministers took a formal vote. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia voted no. Finland abstained.

The plan will be discussed further Wednesday by leaders from across the 28-member bloc, who will gather here for an emergency summit meeting. It is not clear whether the dissenting countries, which have vigorously opposed mandatory quotas, will comply.

The crisis has tested the limits of Europe’s ability to forge consensus on one of the most divisive issues to confront the union since the fall of communism. It has set right-wing politicians, including those who govern Hungary, against pan-European humanitarians, who have portrayed the crisis in stark moral terms.

“We would have preferred to have adoption by consensus, but we did not manage to achieve that,” Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, said after the meeting. He urged the countries that had voted no to comply with the decision. “I have no doubt they will implement these decisions fully,” he said.

Asselborn generated some confusion Tuesday when he said that the member states had agreed to take their allocations of migrants on a “voluntary” basis. Pressed on whether the countries that dissented would also have to accept the migrants, he responded, “Nobody has the right not to agree.”

‘We would have preferred to have adoption by consensus, but we did not manage to achieve that.’

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister 

Quote Icon

Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, played down the lack of consensus.

“It was very important for us that everyone would participate in this plan,” Cazeneuve said after the meeting at a news conference with his German counterpart, Thomas de Maizière. The decision was in the “European spirit,” Cazeneuve said, noting that an “overwhelming majority” of nations had supported it.

But there were early signs of resistance to the plan. “I’m very surprised by this unprecedented decision,” Slovakia’s interior minister, Robert Kalinak, said after the vote. The Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, said his government would “reject any attempt to introduce some permanent mechanism of redistributing refugees.”

The idea behind the plan — backed by Germany and France, the dominant powers in Europe — is to relieve the pressure on front-line nations like Italy and Greece, to which migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa have been flooding. Germany has estimated that it will give refuge to as many as 1 million people this year.

The dispute has highlighted a political divide among wealthier countries like Germany and Sweden, which have emphasized multiculturalism and humanitarian aid, and poorer countries from the former Communist bloc, like Hungary and Slovakia, that are alarmed at the economic and social challenges of absorbing so many migrants.

Another factor holding up a deal is the reluctance of a number of countries to hand over control of immigration to the European Commission, the Brussels-based executive agency for the European Union, which drew up the plans for the mandatory system.

Diplomats had failed to agree on a draft accord Monday but met again Tuesday, before the interior ministers’ meeting.

If EU leaders ratify the plan Wednesday, despite a lack of broad agreement, it could exacerbate disharmony in Europe that has already led to the reintroduction of border controls by some countries.

One surprise Tuesday was Poland’s decision to vote yes. It had criticized the proposal, but its former prime minister, Donald Tusk, has been a strong advocate for the migrants and refugees.

Tusk, now the president of the European Council, which convened the meeting scheduled for Wednesday, said he wanted the leaders to discuss expanding cooperation with Turkey so that refugees there were given adequate care and shelter and were dissuaded from trying to enter the European Union.

“We must help Syrian refugees to a better life closer to their homes,” Tusk wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Tusk also said he wanted the leaders to discuss expanding fingerprinting and creating more reception centers in Greece and Italy. That could turn spots where migrants gather into full-fledged refugee camps.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, urged governments Tuesday to substantially increase funding for Frontex, the EU’s border control agency.

“This is not the time for business as usual,” he said. “If you really want to help these people, you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

One of the most intransigent countries in the migration crisis has been Hungary. It has built a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia and is fortifying its border with Croatia. It has also granted its army extra powers to deal with migrants, including allowing the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons, provided no lethal force is used.

Hungary has resisted the relocation plan — even though it would allow the country to move an estimated 54,000 migrants from its territory to that of other European Union members.

The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, intended to present to Turkey a Hungarian proposal calling for the EU to finance refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The new plan to distribute 120,000 migrants follows a similarly contentious debate in June over how to deal with 40,000 migrants, most of them from Syria or Eritrea. The EU has missed several deadlines for settling those migrants.

One idea diplomats have discussed is to decide on the number of migrants each member state should take without specifying the method used to make those calculations.