Brussels launches action against Visegrad states over migrant quotas

Brussels launches action against Visegrad states over migrant quotas
By Tim Gosling June 13, 2017

The European Commission announced on June 13 that it has launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland over their refusal to take part in the EU’s migrant quota scheme.

The announcement was widely expected following media reports the previous day. The statement from the commission exhibits clear frustration with the Visegrad states for their refusal to help.

“Over the last months, the commission has repeatedly called on those member states that have not yet relocated a single person, or that are not pledging to relocate, to do so,” the statement reads. “Regrettably, despite these repeated calls, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, in breach of their legal obligations… have not yet taken the necessary action.”

The action follows swiftly on warnings issued by the commission last week. Such surefootedness is at odds with the bloc’s modus operandi over the past couple of years, and extends the evidence that confidence in Brussels has been boosted by the French and Dutch election defeats for far-right, Eurosceptic populists.

That suggests the likes of the governments of Hungary and Poland face a far rougher ride over accusations that they are abusing the rule of law and democracy, and failing to accept the responsibilities of EU membership.

The renewed confidence is clear in the uncompromising language used in the statement. “When it comes to relocation, let me be crystal clear: the implementation of the Council Decisions on relocation is a legal obligation, not a choice,” said Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos.

With an election coming up in October, Prague said earlier this month that it would not accept any more refugees under the programme, which was pushed through the European Council in 2015 and seeks to distribute 160,000 refugees that are currently in frontline states such as Greece and Italy.

The move is at odds with comments made by the European Commission president in Prague on June 9. Appearing at a press conference alongside Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Jean-Claude Juncker praised the Czech Republic for taking on the responsibilities that come with EU membership.

The statement clearly refutes that view of Prague. The Visegrad states have reacted furiously to accusations throughout the migrant crisis that they happily accept a huge volume of funding from the EU, but are very unwilling to accept the responsibilities of membership. It has been suggested several times in the past that cooperation on migrant quotas should be linked to EU structural funds.

“We can only effectively manage migration in Europe if we all work together in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility," European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said.

The Czech Republic, which has for the past few years sought to play the model member state when compared with its regional peers, is reported to have accepted a dozen of the 2,600 refugees it is required to host. Slovakia took in 16 of the 900 or so migrants it is marked down for in the last 12 months and so is reportedly saved from the commission action for now.

Hungary and Poland have refused to take any refugees. Hungary and Slovakia have both lodged cases against the quotas with the European Court of Justice. Bratislava’s case in the ECJ concentrates on procedural issues regarding the 2015 vote.

The commission statement also responds to claims in Visegrad that the whole relocation effort is facing problems because other states are equally unwilling to take in refugees. “The pace of relocation has significantly increased in 2017 with almost 10,300 persons relocated since January — a fivefold increase compared to the same period in 2016,” the statement adds. “As of June 9, the total number of relocations stands at 20,869.

“With most member states having shown that relocation works if there is political will, the commission is calling on those… who have not yet done so to take steps to comply with their legal obligations and contribute fairly and proportionally to the scheme,” the EU executive demands.

Hungary and Poland's foreign minister have both insisted since the start of the week that their countries will not give in to "blackmail" linking EU funds with accepting refugees. All of the Visegrad countries are heavily dependent on structural funds for economic growth. At around €90bn, Poland is the largest recipient in the EU under the 2014-20 budgetary window. Hungary and the Czech Republic have around €25bn available.