Poland splits Visegrad with support for EU refugee quotas

By bne IntelliNews September 22, 2015

Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw -


The death of the Visegrad Four was proclaimed by Czech officials on September 22 as Poland fractured its united opposition to the EU's push to implement quotas for the redistribution of migrants.

The writing was on the wall for the split of the group, which has loosely joined Poland with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia since the collapse of communism. The long series of crises impacting the EU since 2008 has only magnified the differing pressures and interests that influence the four states.

Poland has now stepped entirely out of line with its Central European peers, obliterating what was proclaimed a regional front against the plan of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to impose quotas on member states for the redistribution of 120,000 refugees. During a meeting of interior ministers, Warsaw backed a plan to redistribute 66,000 migrants over the next two years.

Poland will take around 5,500. The ministers also decided that a new quota of 54,000 could be decided later on. The other V4 states, along with Romania, voted against the plan, but the need for unanimous agreement had been stripped. Poland's "treachery" provoked fury elsewhere in the region.

Poland’s backing of the plan, under extreme pressure from EU heavyweight Germany, is a change on several fronts, and serves different purposes, both internally and externally. It should also come as little surprise, with its stance clearly changing in recent weeks. However, it also looks to have driven a nail into the V4, and the widespread notion that Central and Eastern European countries stick together because they share a common communist past will now be difficult to defend.

Central European unity has in fact been through a series of crises that has exposed the region’s differing interests and been pulling it apart. Over the past two years there have been stark differences in the stance of the V4 members towards the Ukraine crisis and Russia. EU climate policy has also stretched the group's cohesion, while eight years or so of economic crises has exposed all sorts of crevices. 

Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec somewhat dramatically announced the death of the V4 on Twitter. “We will soon seen the emperor’s naked. Common sense lost today,” he wrote, before adding: "Poland took a break. I am afraid that today it's only V3".

Alongside Slovak peer Robert Kalinak, Chovanec announced the countries stand ready to file a complaint with the EU General Court in Luxembourg over the EU plan, which contains a threat to fine any member state not fulfilling its quota. 

Kalinak's boss Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has led a bitter campaign against accepting any refugees, was furious. "I would rather have Slovakia impeached than agree with the Brussels' dictate," he thundered, according to TASR. The PM claimed that as long as he is PM, mandatory quotas won't be implemented in Slovakia.  

“We had two options. If we blocked the plan, we wouldn’t have blocked it anyway,” came an indirect response from Polish Minister of European Affairs Rafal Trzaskowski, Gazeta Wyborcza reported.

Election effects

Poland’s siding with Western Europe over Juncker’s plan – and much with Berlin’s stance on an EU-wide response to the migrant crisis – will also have repercussions in internal politics. A month before the general election, the ruling Civic Platform (PO) has risked further deteriorating its position in the polls compared with the fiercely anti-migrant opposition Law and Justice (PiS).

“[Support for Juncker’s plan] will help PiS in the campaign a lot, given the not uncommon attitude of resentment towards migrants in Poland,” says Marek Matraszek, head of CEC Government Relations, a public affairs consultancy. “It also goes against President’s Duda’s ambitions to bring CEE together.” 

At the same time, Poland’s decision about migrants is likely to win Warsaw points in Brussels, which PiS could well take advantage of should it win the October vote. Polish parties, like the rest of the V4, are well practiced at pursuing different policy lines at home and in Brussels.

More likely, however, is that PO has effectively conceded defeat in the elections already – it has been trailing PiS by around 10 points in the polls for month now – and will use its vote for Juncker’s plan to attack an incoming PiS government as anti-European and xenophobic. PiS and PiS-friendly media have been running an anti-immigrant campaign for weeks now, never shying away from straightforwardly racist commentary.

PO has, of course, voted for the refugee plan having made sure it is not too imposing on member states, either. Minister Trzaskowski stressed Poland will have control over who is coming to the country, as well as that the numbers of migrants per each member states were an effect of agreement rather than the Commission’s orders.

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