BRUSSELS — European leaders moved Wednesday toward a messy showdown over the continent’s refugee crisis amid increasingly bitter divisions — and even possible court challenges — over how to cope with the crush of asylum seekers and others.
The conclave comes a day after European Union interior ministers pushed through a plan to spread 120,000 asylum seekers across Europe over the strenuous objections of four Central European nations.
The rare maneuver to force countries to adopt policies against their will raised questions over the line between sovereignty and European unity.
One opponent, Slovakia, upped the ante: warning it would reject the E.U. resettlement decision and threatening to oppose it in court.
“We will go in two directions: first one, we will file a charge at the court in Luxembourg . . . secondly, we will not implement the (decision) of the interior ministers,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told reporters before leaving for the summit in Brussels.
It was a yet another sign of the deeper challenges facing the 28-nation bloc amid the largest mass movement of people on the continent since World War II.
In July, Greece was nearly kicked out of the euro zone and it still faces crippling economic problems. Europe has also struggled to keep a united front against Russia in response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
So the leaders who plan meet for dinner on Wednesday may find the canapé discussions less than polite.
Leaders of the four countries that voted against the refugee measure — Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — have all condemned the effort as a grave violation of their independence in a bloc that usually prides itself on consensus.
The E.U. leaders plan to focus their talks on broader strategic efforts to ease the flow of the hundreds of thousands of people who have sought haven in Europe this year from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, but also other countries as economic migrants seeking jobs and a better future.
The E.U. envoys will try to reach an agreement about bolstering Europe’s external borders to better sort refugees fleeing war from economic migrants whom they can deport. And they will also seek to boost aid to the countries surrounding Syria in a bid to make it more palatable for refugees to stay closer to home.
For all the controversy, Tuesday’s plan would find homes for just 20 days’ worth of new arrivals to Europe, a measure of the scale of the crisis and the baby steps the continent has taken to address it. Croatia said Wednesday that more than 44,000 migrants had entered its territory in the last week alone.
Ahead of the meeting, the European Commission announced plans to boost aid for the E.U. countries most affected by the influx of asylum seekers, and it also said it would send $1.1 billion in aid to Turkey in an effort to help ease conditions for refugees there.
It also said that it was launching proceedings against 19 E.U. nations for infringement of European asylum rules.
“The decision to relocate 160,000 people from the most affected member states is a historic first and a genuine, laudable expression of European solidarity,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday. “It cannot be the end of the story, however. It is time for further, bold, determined and concerted action by the European Union, by its institutions and by all its member states.”
The decision to override the dissenters means the E.U. will be sending thousands of people to nations that do not want them, raising questions about both the future of bloc and the well-being of the asylum seekers consigned to those countries.
But after Tuesday’s bitter vote, it was unclear how much common ground remained among leaders.
“Some people will say today that Europe is divided because the decision was not taken by consensus,” said Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, on Tuesday. “If we had not done this, Europe would have been even more divided and its credibility would have been even more undermined.”
Wealthy nations such as Germany have faced tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving every week. Leaders there have welcomed Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged country, but they have also said they cannot shoulder the entire burden on their own. The country expects up to 1 million asylum seekers this year alone.
Proponents of the plan acknowledged Tuesday that it was just a first step to address the much bigger crisis. According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 477,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year via often-dangerous sea crossings, and 6,000 now land on Europe’s shores every day — up sharply even from August, when this figure stood at about 4,200 a day.
Central European leaders condemned the vote, warning that Europe would suffer as a result of the plan to force them to accept asylum seekers.
“Very soon we will see that the emperor has no clothes,” Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said on Twitter. “Common sense lost today.”
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has crusaded against the mostly Muslim asylum seekers, saying they are on a campaign to de-Christianize Europe. He has built a more than 100-mile razor-tipped fence to keep them away from his country’s frontier with Serbia and in recent days has started to expand this barrier to the borders with Romania and Croatia.