This is an elite decision. I doubt that there is any EU country where it would have public support. There is certainly a lot of opposition to it being aired in popular British newspapers

Europe is planning to take more refugees under a common resettlement scheme launched yesterday that aims to end people-trafficking from the world’s conflict zones.

In a step towards a common EU asylum policy, the proposals from the European Commission will see a co-ordinated plan for receiving displaced people who already have refugee status but are often stuck in camps in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The first group to be dealt with is expected to be Iraqi refugees based in Syria and Jordan while future beneficiaries could be Somali refugees in Kenya and Sudanese refugees in Chad.

Governments that take people from the priority area will receive 4,000 euros per person from the EU’s Refugee Fund, raising fears that those not identified as an EU priority could be shunned. The scheme is expected to extend to all 27 member nations and will start with closer co-operation between the ten countries, including Britain, that already have resettlement schemes.

European countries found homes for 4,378 refugees from outside the EU’s borders last year, just 6.7 per cent of the global total of 65,596 resettled persons. The UN’s refugee agency has said that there are 203,000 refugees in urgent need of a permanent home this year.

“This is an example of the EU expressing shared responsibility and also about increasing the international standing of the EU,” said a spokesman for the European Commission. “You have a situation where Canada resettled 10,000 people last year while the EU did just half of that, so we want to improve our situation.

“Currently resettlement is carried out by EU member states without much consultation and co-ordination. The programme provides for closer political and practical co-operation to increase the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of resettlement.”

The common EU priorities will be decided by a new Resettlement Expert Group. The identification of refugees to be resettled and services such as medical screening and visa arrangements will be helped by a new agency, the European Asylum Support Office, which is to be established next year.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles described the proposal as “a good first step towards a fully-fledged European resettlement programme, which should ultimately lead to an increase of resettlement places in Europe.” But it warned that the setting of priorties should not be used as an excuse to reject non-priority cases.

A spokesman for the British Government said that it had resettled 2,100 refugees since 2004. He added: “We are pleased to see the EU move towards a common system of refugee resettlement, which has the potential to benefit some of the worlds most vulnerable people.

“We will consider and scrutinise the details of these new proposals very carefully prior to agreement and the UK has the ability to opt out of any proposal that is not in our national interest.”

The launch was in danger of being overshadowed yesterday by a row between Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, and the European Commission over Italy’s treatment of migrants. The Commission has asked for details of a reported incident in which a boatful of 75 migrants, thought to be Somali, was intercepted by the Italian coastguard 27 miles (43 km) from Sicily and sent back to Libya without checking if any were legitimate asylum-seekers.

Mr Berlusconi threatened to block decisions at the forthcoming European Council meeting in protest at remarks from a Commission spokesman who stated that Italy was being asked to explain its actions. “If commissioners and spokesmen continue as they have done all these years, they should be fired in a definitive manner,” he said.