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EU 'nearing' agreement on migration policy reform

Updated 1200.

EU commissioners expressed optimism on Thursday that the bloc would finally agree a reformed migration policy package, after Germany signalled its backing.

"We are now nearing the big agreement that Europe needs after many years of failures," commissioner Margaritis Schinas said as he went into a meeting of EU interior ministers.

"Hopefully today they can agree on the last piece of the pact," which had been holding up its adoption, fellow commissioner Ylva Johansson said.

Paralysis on the issue has caused frustration in the 27-nation bloc as it faces a rise in irregular migration. 

The arrival of thousands of asylum-seekers on the Italian island of Lampedusa has spurred urgency to get the revised pact on migration and asylum in place.

The aim of the reform, introduced three years ago, is to have EU states share the obligation to look after the arrivals, either by taking in some of the migrants who mainly come to Italy or Greece or contributing money to countries that do.

But Germany had baulked at some of the hardline proposals in it, which include lengthening the detention period of irregular migrants arriving on EU soil from 12 weeks to 20 weeks. It wanted less strict policies applied to minors and families.

Going into the Brussels meeting, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said she was "confident that we will achieve a good result in the end" and that her government would achieve modifications it wanted to the package.

"For us, it is important that, even in the event of a crisis... a state does not make use of it recklessly to then lower standards," she said.

The text, drawn up by the European Commission, is in part a bid to forge Europe-wide solidarity in case of a repeat of the massive 2015-2016 influx of asylum-seekers, most of whom were Syrians fleeing their civil war.

An earlier attempt to get the reform adopted in July failed when the required weighted majority of EU countries was not met.  

Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic voted against the package, while Germany, Slovakia and the Netherlands abstained.

Ministers from other EU countries also expressed optimism that they could get the pact over the line.

"We are very close to an agreement," Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said. He was chairing the meeting under his country's tenure of the rotating EU presidency.

His Austrian counterpart Gerhard Karner said he was "happy and grateful that there has been movement in the last few hours, in the last few days" on the dossier.

- 'Major political convergence' -

Schinas said "we are very encouraged by the signals coming out of Berlin" which suggest "a major political convergence" on the issue.

To add pressure to the haggling, the European Parliament last week paused negotiations with EU member states on other aspects of the pact, those dealing with reinforced security along the bloc's outer border.

One relates to Eurodac, a biometric database for asylum-seekers, and the introduction of a mandatory screening procedure of irregular arrivals.

The goal of the EU is to have the reform adopted before European elections next June that will usher in a new European Parliament and commission.

The next cycle in EU politics could see a political shift in the European Parliament, given the rise of right-wing parties in several EU countries, and would see Hungary and Poland -- both hostile to hosting asylum-seekers -- take turns holding the rotating EU presidency that sets policy agendas.