bne IntelliNews -
Central European governments have blocked, at least for now, EU plans to redistribute an additional 120,000 asylum seekers across the bloc through mandatory quotas. The deadlock came as a record 9,000 migrants – largely from Syria and Iraq – rushed to cross the Hungarian border on September 14 ahead of the completion of a 170-kilometre fence.
Interior ministers from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania were the biggest opponents of the plan, during what were described as very heated debates at the Justice and Home Affairs Council held late on September 14. The plan, which had been put forward by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week, will now be discussed again at the October 8 interior ministers' meeting.
The row threatens to widen the divisions between the western and eastern members of the EU, with new member states from the east accused of seeing themselves only as recipients of the benefits of membership, rather than contributors to the bloc. “Europe is not Europe a la carte," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said afterwards. “If Europe wants to surmount this humanitarian challenge, it is necessary that all countries live up to their responsibilities.”
Thomas de Maiziere, German interior minister, even went so far as to argue that if Central European countries continue to refuse to play their part, they could be docked EU structural funds. “We have to talk about pressure,” de Maiziere said in an interview with ZDF television, as quoted by The Times. He said that Juncker had suggested that “we should talk about [them] getting less money from the structural funds.” Tomas Prouza, the Czech Europe minister, retorted in a tweet that this threat was "empty" but "damaging to all".
Under Juncker’s proposal, which was backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 120,000 of the most deserving asylum seekers from struggling frontline states Greece, Italy and Hungary would be relocated around the bloc under a mandatory quota system.
At the meeting, interior ministers only agreed “in principle” to share out another 120,000, and even this was not unanimous. All member states agreed to participate, but the way the 120,000 would be redistributed was postponed for future discussion. There was also no mention in the final communiqué of from which countries the refugees would be redistributed.
Interior ministers did agree, however, to implement a previous proposal to redistribute 40,000 voluntarily from Italy and Greece by December. So far member states have only volunteered to take 32,256 persons. “There is an agreement in principle that is backed by a large majority and we can proceed on that,” said Jean Asselborn, the interior minister of Luxembourg, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
Hungary has refused to take part in the plan, even though it would benefit from the redistribution of a planned 54,000 asylum seekers who have crossed its borders. So far this year 190,00 migrants have entered the country.
The populist rightwing government of Viktor Orban argues that Hungary is not a frontline state – as migrants should register as asylum seekers in neighbouring non-EU member Serbia – and that mandatory quotas would only encourage more migrants to attempt to enter the EU.
It is just completing a four-metre high fence along its border with Serbia and passed a new law that would make it a criminal offence to try to enter the country illegally. Hungary's move could divert the migrant tide to neighbouring Balkan countries.
Orban has said that Hungary will in future expel any migrants attempting to enter the country who have not registered in Serbia beforehand. Under EU rules, asylum seekers should register in the first EU country they reach; Serbia is only a candidate country that has not yet joined the EU.
Other Central and Eastern European member states have also opposed mandatory quotas because they argue that their societies have no tradition of accepting immigrants – particularly largely Muslim migrants from the Middle East – and cannot afford to take them in. They also argue that the migrants have no wish to settle in their country and they will not be able to force them to stay.
For their part, Western European officials have hinted that unless the migrant crisis is solved, it could kill the Schengen open borders system, one of the bloc's greatest achievements.
Germany already began imposing checks at the Austrian border on September 13, swiftly followed by Austria. Slovakia has also imposed checks at the Hungarian and Austrian borders, and the Czech Republic has stepped up border patrols. Poland is also considering tightening its border.
Central European countries insist that the EU should focus on addressing the migrant crisis in the countries the refugees are fleeing from, and on tightening the external border. "At the moment, the fact that the outer Schengen border does not function and that the EU has tolerated the fact that the countries situated on the outer Schengen border are unable to fulfil the duties that they assumed is being solved in the middle of Europe," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on September 14.
Interior ministers did agree on September 14 to give more aid to the UNHCR refugee agency – which is running camps close to Syria's borders – and on the need for tighter control of the bloc's external borders, as well as rapid screening of arrivals and deportation of those without valid asylum claims. The ministers also agreed to finalise soon a list of "safe countries" whose citizens would not normally be entitled to asylum.
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