The EU has agreed to grant immediate protections and rights to Ukrainians fleeing war, for the first time invoking a 20-year-old power designed to help shelter refugees.
The swift and unanimous decision was remarkable, given that migration has historically plagued and fractured the EU.
Invoking the so-called Temporary Protection Directive will allow Ukrainians to move freely within the EU, give them the instant right to live and work within the bloc, and also offer them access to social service benefits such as housing and medical care.
This measure also means that Ukrainians will be granted temporary residence status without having to go through complex asylum procedures.
The unprecedented agreement was reached in record time. The clause activated on Thursday had only been proposed on Sunday by the French presidency of the EU. The European Commission then worked on a text it proposed on Wednesday before it was adopted unanimously on Thursday.
This is the first time that the EU has agreed to use the refugee protection clause. The bloc created the option in 2001 following the Kosovo refugee crisis.
Until Thursday morning, it was not even thought that the measure would be approved that day. EU interior ministers only had to give their political stamp of approval as officials continued to draft the text of the deal.
Instead, EU ambassadors held an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon where they worked out differences in the text. And later the interior ministers were able to approve the finished product.
The quick deal contrasts sharply with years of stalled efforts on another migration issue: EU asylum rules.
Since the Syrian migration surge in 2015, authorities have been trying to review the way asylum seekers are processed and distributed across the EU. But deep divisions between Eastern and Southern countries on the subject have prevented the issue from moving forward.
One of the main reasons for Thursday’s swift action was the desire to achieve tangible results that showed unity with Ukraine, Czech Interior Minister Vít Rakušan told POLITICO during a break in the discussion.
“It would be best for all of us to have a particular outcome from our discussion today,” he said. “It is really necessary to show that the EU is really united these days.”
There is also an awareness of the historic scale of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, which is expected to easily exceed the one million asylum seekers who reached the EU in the 2015-2016 migration wave.
“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. “Nearly a million are here already.”
The final agreement to provide protections will only apply to Ukrainian citizens and refugees. As with other citizens fleeing conflict, EU member countries can choose between offering them European status or national status.
The change was made at the request of Poland and several other countries.
Johansson downplayed the significance of the change, arguing that unanimous decision on the final product was more important than passing the original proposal via a so-called supermajority.
She said non-Ukrainian citizens with long-term residence permits in Ukraine should also be covered.
Yet behind the euphoria over the quick decision, officials worried about the mounting humanitarian crisis and how it will affect countries absorbing Ukrainians.
“A lot of colleagues here, they talk about Poland, Slovakia, but we as the Czech Republic are the real target country these days,” Rakušan said, citing 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.