Germany, France, Italy and Malta are seeking approval from their EU partners for a "fast-track" process to screen migrants, relocate asylum-seekers and return people who do not apply or qualify for asylum, all within four weeks.
"It's a moment for all member states to show more solidarity and more responsibility," Migration Commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Luxembourg, where EU interior ministers were meeting to discuss migration challenges in the Mediterranean.
"We cannot continue like this with what is happening in the Mediterranean. We cannot only try to find ad hoc solutions. We need permanent mechanisms," he said. The system would work based on "pre-declared pledges" countries make to accept asylum-seekers and involve "streamlining procedures" currently in place. Details of the plan are sketchy, but it would operate for at least six months, unless migrant arrivals increase dramatically.
Under the plan agreed in Malta last month, the EU would also provide "financial, technical and operational assistance" to countries involved. For more than a year, humanitarian ships that picked up migrants having left Libya in unseaworthy boats were blocked from docking or disembarking passengers in Italy or Malta. Italy's former anti-migrant interior minister even threatened to jail the crews of charity-run rescue ships.
The stance taken by the two countries resulted in standoffs that kept rescued migrants at sea for weeks until other EU nations pledged to take at least some of the people seeking safety or better lives in Europe.
"Saving people from drowning and fighting the unscrupulous smugglers both belong to the European foundation of values, and so I am pretty sure that many countries will express their sympathy with such a solution," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.
Seehofer's willingness to have Germany take a quarter of the people rescued by humanitarian ships has prompted criticism even from within his own conservative party. But Seehofer pushed back against skeptics, noting that in 14 months Germany has taken in 225 people rescued at sea, adding that "you really can't say that this is the really big challenge of our time — we have other problems."
"Of course, we must protect ourselves against there being a 'pull effect,' a magnetic effect," he said. "And we have done that by saying that if this solution were to be abused — if hundreds today turned into thousands — then I can say tomorrow that the emergency mechanism is ended."
Well over a million migrants arrived in the EU in 2015, most of them refugees from countries at war like Syria or Iraq, sparking one of Europe's biggest political crises as nations bickered over who should take responsibility for them and whether others should be forced to help.
New arrivals have now dropped to their lowest levels in about seven years, particularly between Libya and Italy, but EU countries are still unable to agree on the best way forward, and far-right and anti-migrant parties have taken advantage of the confusion.
Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency until Dec. 31, said that temporary arrangements like the new plan appear to be the only solution for now until a new team of EU leaders and a new European Commission take office in November.
She noted that sorely-needed reform of the EU's asylum system "has been stuck for years." Human rights group Amnesty International said it's important to end "yet another obscene standoff at sea." "A strong agreement will help save lives and demonstrate that EU countries are committed to working together to uphold basic values and international obligations," said Amnesty migration researcher, Matteo de Bellis.
AP Writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.