BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Home affairs ministers from the European Union's 27 member states gathered on Thursday to try get across the line an elusive agreement on how to share out the responsibility of caring for refugees and migrants.
A tentative deal on the table comes after years of damaging feuds between EU states since their cooperation collapsed in acrimony in 2015 as more than a million people - mostly fleeing the war in Syria - arrived across the Mediterranean.
"It is important that we come to an agreement," Germany's Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on arriving at the talks. "We can only handle migration together as the whole EU."
"I feel there is a common understanding which could lead to an agreement, but not at any price."
The expected deal would allow countries unwilling to receive irregular migrants and refugees arriving ad hoc to the EU to instead help their hosting peers through cash, equipment or personnel.
It would introduce an expedited border procedure for those deemed unlikely to win asylum to prevent them from lingering inside the bloc for years before they eventually leave.
The minister for Spain, which will be tasked with finalising any deal as the next holder of the bloc's rotating presidency until the end of the year, said he was "sure" of an agreement.
France's Gerald Darmanin hoped a compromise "will allow the European Union and the member states to come up with some answers for the public opinion on migratory issues" ahead of bloc-wide parliamentary election due in June 2024.
For nearly a decade, EU countries traded blame for handling new arrivals. They have pushed to cut irregular immigration, with U.N. data showing fewer than 160,000 sea migrants arriving in the bloc of half a billion people last year.
On Thursday, the ministers will also discuss EU aid for Tunisia, which is a gateway for African migration to Europe and faces growing instability.
Inside the EU, southern disembarkation countries like Italy and Greece have long demanded more help, while the rich destination states like Germany and Sweden have refused to take in all those coming.
Bad blood spilled over as eastern EU countries like Poland and Hungary refused to host anyone from the mainly-Muslim Middle East and North Africa. Right-wing and populist parties fuelled the debate with anti-immigration rhetoric across the bloc.
"You can still win and lose any election in any member state on migration. It is an illustration of how contentious this issue is," said a senior EU diplomat involved in the talks.
Budapest would "certainly not" vote for a deal, a spokesperson said without elaborating. Backers of the compromise, however, hope to build the necessary majority without Hungary, the EU's loudest voice against immigration.
Liberal critics of the expected agreement said the rapid border procedure would risk reviving tragic scenes that played out on the Greek islands several years ago by creating even more overcrowded and inadequate migration camps on EU rims.
(Additional reporting by Benoit van Overstraeten, Bart Meijer, Alexander Ratz, Kristina Than, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Mark Potter)