The EU has agreed to give immediate protections and rights to Ukrainians fleeing the war, invoking for the first time a 20-year-old power designed to help shelter refugees.
The swift and unanimous decision was remarkable, given that migration has historically bedeviled and fractured the EU.
Invoking the so-called Temporary Protection Directive will allow Ukrainians to move freely across the EU, give them instant rights to live and work within the bloc, and also offer them access to social service benefits like housing and medical care.
The measure also means Ukrainians will be given temporary residency status without having to go through complex asylum procedures.
The unprecedented deal came together in record time. The clause activated on Thursday had only been proposed on Sunday by the French EU presidency. The European Commission then worked on a text that it proposed on Wednesday before it passed unanimously on Thursday.
It’s the first time the EU has actually agreed to use the refugee protection clause. The bloc created the option in 2001 following the Kosovo refugee crisis.
Until Thursday morning, it wasn’t even thought the measure would be approved that day. EU interior ministers were only expected to give their political seal of approval while officials continued to hash out the text of the deal.
Instead, EU ambassadors held an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon where they worked through differences in the text. And later, the interior ministers were able to sign off on the finished product.
The rapid agreement stands in stark contrast to the years of stalled efforts on another migration issue: EU asylum rules.
Since the Syrian migration surge in 2015, officials have been trying to overhaul how asylum seekers are processed and distributed through the EU. But deep divisions between eastern and southern countries on the subject kept the issue from advancing.
A major reason for the swift action on Thursday was a desire to have tangible results that showed unity with Ukraine, Czech Interior Minister Vít Rakušan told POLITICO during a break in the discussion.
“It would be better for all of us to have some particular result of our discussion today,” he said. “It’s really necessary to show that the EU in these days is really united.”
There’s also an awareness of the history-making scale of the Ukraine refugee crisis, which is expected to easily surpass the 1 million-plus asylum seekers who reached the EU during the 2015-16 migration surge.
“We are in a very, very dangerous situation with the developments in Ukraine, we have to prepare for millions of refugees to come to the European Union,” Johansson told reporters at the start of a meeting. “Already almost 1 million are here.”
The final deal to provide protections will only apply to Ukrainian citizens and refugees. As for other citizens fleeing the conflict, EU member countries can choose between offering them EU status or national status.
The change was made at the request of Poland and several other countries.
Johansson downplayed the tweak, arguing that the unanimous decision on the ultimate product was more important than adopting the original proposal via a so-called qualified majority.
She said non-Ukrainian citizens who have long-term residency permits in Ukraine should still be covered, as well.
Yet behind the euphoria over the quick decision, officials fretted about the mounting humanitarian crisis and how it will affect the countries absorbing Ukrainians.
“A lot of colleagues here, they speak about Poland, about Slovakia, but we as the Czech Republic, we are the real target country in these days,” Rakušan said, quoting figures showing 5,000 migrant arrivals per day in his country, a figure that normally covers a full month.
“The difference is really huge,” he said.