BRUSSELS — Invoking Europe’s centuries-long tradition of hosting people fleeing persecution and poverty, a top E.U. leader implored the continent Wednesday to make 160,000 spots for asylum seekers and to reimagine its approach to immigration amid the worst refugee crisis in decades. The appeal came under immediate fire from anti-migrant leaders.
In a speech that reached back to the 17th-century Huguenots and stretched forward to the atrocities of the Islamic State, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled a proposal to spread asylum seekers across Europe. But the sweeping plan went far beyond the immediate crisis, with a call to open the continent’s doors to other forms of migration, making aging E.U. nations more like the immigrant-rich United States.
The proposal aimed to provide a reception for the tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis making their way toward Western Europe across the fields and forests of the Western Balkans, and Juncker said he wanted E.U. leaders to approve it as early as Monday. But several Central European leaders said they staunchly opposed any requirement for them to take in refugees. And with Germany alone expecting 800,000 asylum seekers this year, the plan also fell far short of addressing the actual numbers coming to Europe’s shores.
“Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee,” Juncker said. “Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, from dictatorship and from oppression.”
Under European rules, any plan requires the assent of all countries in the bloc, where scenes of desperation and chaos played out along the refugee trail Wednesday. Thousands of new asylum seekers landed on overburdened Greek islands. Scuffles broke out between refugees and police in the cornfields between Serbia and Hungary. And Denmark shut down a highway and parts of its railway system for hours to try to halt the flow of refugees to Sweden.
A top Hungarian official said Wednesday that his nation opposed the proposal, dashing hopes that a comprehensive approach to the crisis could lure the support of wavering Central European nations. Hungary last week tried to trick thousands of asylum seekers into registration camps before relenting and allowing a torrent of men, women and children into Austria and Germany.
“What the commission is proposing is the second, the third or even the fourth step,” said Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “And what we need is the first step. You need to stop the flow of illegal migrants and establish control of the European borders.
“The Hungarian position is going to be constructive. We need a European plan, but we are going to be outspoken,” Kovacs added.
The leaders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia also said they opposed the plan to require 22 E.U. nations to take in asylum seekers from the front-line states of Italy, Greece and Hungary. There was opposition from Baltic nations as well.
But in a sign that the urgency of the crisis has started to make a deal at least possible, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka praised the proposal’s focus on finding “a long-term and systemic solution to the serious problem of unregulated migration.”
Under Juncker’s proposal, Germany, France and Spain would take the majority of 120,000 asylum seeker slots, and the remainder would be distributed across 19 other nations. The plan also includes an additional 40,000 asylum seekers that E.U. nations pledged earlier in the summer to take in voluntarily. Eligibility would be limited for now to Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans.
In an effort to more quickly distinguish refugees fleeing war from economic migrants, his plan would also create a list of “safe” nations whose citizens would be quickly deported. He would strengthen Europe’s border controls to try to combat the human smugglers who have profited from the influx.
And Europe would set up a permanent mechanism to handle future refugee crises that would continue to spread asylum seekers across the continent.
But in a bigger change, Juncker would push Europe to create more paths for legal migration not based on asylum claims, an effort to ease pressure on the countries surrounding Syria that have had to absorb 4 million refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011. Europe’s aging, shrinking societies have fewer paths to citizenship than the United States, and the proposal would create a more open, diverse continent.
“What we see now is quite a significant shift,” said Madeline Garlick, a guest researcher at the Center for Migration Law at Radboud University in the Netherlands.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that 131,000 people have landed in Greece since the beginning of August, and many of them continue to stream into Western Europe. The numbers have been accelerating.
“We see increased desperation inside Syria and in the hosting countries,” said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the agency.
But even if it is approved Monday, Juncker’s plan left many questions unanswered.
Almost all asylum seekers prefer to go to Western European nations such as Germany, where wages are high and public support is generous. In a borderless Europe, authorities will face challenges in keeping refugees in the country to which they are assigned.
Nor did Juncker offer a vision for what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who have come, far exceeding the 160,000 spots.
The challenges were evident Wednesday at the chaotic border between Hungary and Serbia, where hundreds of migrants continued to arrive along train tracks and across cornfields. Hungarian police officers were making people wait in an open field of drying grass, where buses occasionally came to take them to a migration processing camp.
Many asylum seekers on the border said their main goal was to make it to Germany, raising questions about what would happen if they were assigned to other, poorer countries.
“They have services in Germany and they like us, so it makes things easier,” said Tahsee Alyas Hassen, 32, a business manager from Sinjar, Iraq, who said his parents, brother and two sisters were already in Germany. “But we will go wherever,” he said.
The proposal would also allow countries to postpone taking in refugees for as long as a year if they had “justified and objective reasons” for doing so, such as a natural disaster, according to a document released after Juncker’s speech. Those nations would pay a fine instead of taking in the refugees.
That might provide a diplomatic escape for Eastern European nations to sign on to the plan without having to take in the asylum seekers.
In Greece, drama eased Wednesday on the island of Lesbos, after ferries packed with migrants helped ease overcrowding, said Tyler Jump, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee on the island. But thousands more remained, and about 3,000 continue to arrive every day, he said.
Robert Samuels in Roszke, Hungary, contributed to this report.