European leaders in talks on creating asylum center outside EU

COPENHAGEN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Several EU countries are discussing setting up a camp for rejected asylum seekers in a country on the continent but outside the European Union, two national leaders said on Tuesday.

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Germany, the Netherlands and Austria were among those involved in the discussions, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told local media, adding he hoped a pilot project could pave the way for an improved European asylum system.

“I’m optimistic. Based on my discussions with other European leaders - and the dialogue that is going on at official level - it is my expectation that we will be able to take the first step this year,” he said separately in a speech marking Denmark’s Constitution Day.

Speaking in Brussels, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz confirmed the plans, saying talks had already reached an advanced stage.

“We suggested a long time ago that it would make sense to offer protection outside of the European Union, where (migrants) get protection where it is necessary but do not have the opportunity to pick the best system in Europe,” Kurz said.

Both Rasmussen and Kurz said talks were being held directly between European governments and not within the EU framework.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was not immediately opposed to such an initiative.

“I believe the defense against illegal immigration is a European as well as national matter. It is not up to me to be against it,” he told a joint press conference with Kurz, ahead of Austria taking over the rotating EU presidency.

Denmark’s intake of asylum seekers has dropped to just over 1,000 in the first four months of this year, from a peak of more than 21,000 in 2015.

Compared with its neighbors Sweden and Germany, Denmark has generally granted fewer people asylum as a proportion of its population.

Rasmussen declined to comment on which countries could be hosting such a camp, though he said it would be in a place that was “not particularly attractive” for traffickers.

Reporting by Teis Jensen in Copenhagen and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Robin Pomeroy