Tim Gosling in Prague -
Central European states have been among the fiercest critics of Brussels’ plan to impose mandatory immigrant quotas to help southern states that are buckling under a wave of asylum seekers.
The Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) has shown rare unity and decisiveness in the EU negotiations by coming together to block the initiative. Yet Central Europe is not threatened with a wave of asylum seekers, and the region is in desperate need of a demographic boost.
On June 25 furious opposition from around Europe blocked the European Commission’s attempt to impose mandatory quotas on member states to relocate tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived in Italy and Greece. Following the late night meeting, the European Council said it would now make the plan voluntary, and hoped to redistribute 40,000 migrants within the bloc, with another 20,000 to be resettled outside. Hungary and Bulgaria have been granted exemptions.
In typical fashion, the summit left Brussels' plan at a halfway house. "Interior ministers will finalise the scheme by the end of July," President of the European Council Donald Tusk told reporters.
"The voluntary scheme cannot be an excuse to do nothing," Tusk warned. "I can understand those who want this voluntary mechanism, but they will only be credible if they give precise and significant pledges by the end of July at the latest," he added.
Threat to European civilisation
As ever, the flamboyantly populist Hungarian government grabbed the headlines ahead of the meeting. Prime Minister Viktor Orban - always happy to antagonise the EU and stepping steadily to the right as his Fidesz party loses support to the far-right Jobbik – called migration a threat to "European civilisation", and said the EU proposal was "bordering on insanity".
Hungary received more asylum-seekers per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden in 2014. The total number of applications made in the country rose to nearly 43,000, compared with just 2,000 in 2012. So far this year, another 60,000 migrants have entered Hungary, most of them through Serbia, according to government figures.
Hungary has announced plans to build a fence on its southern border with Serbia. Furthermore, it has threatened to refuse to take back asylum seekers who registered in the country but moved elsewhere in Europe before their requests were resolved. According to the EU's Dublin regulation, refugees can be sent back to the country where they first requested asylum. The government has also come under fire for a poster and questionnaire campaign that connected immigrants to terrorism and economic problems.
Others have not been not far behind Orban, as the regional media throws around claims that countries risk being "swamped" by migrants, even though it has never been the final destination of choice.
Following anti-immigration protests in Bratislava on June 20 that turned violent, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has suggested a referendum – that most populist of moves – could be held should Brussels insist.
Under the quotas, Slovakia would have been expected to accept just 785 immigrants this year and next. However, that's more than the 650 to whom the country has granted asylum in the 22 years since it gained independence.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka summed up Prague's stance on June 24. "In the past we always accepted refuges on a voluntary basis… and we want things to stay that way. We want our government to be the one to decide on who we accept and when, as well as to weigh all the security and social risks. We don't want an automatic system introduced at the European level, to decide about us without us."
Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a statement that accepting asylum seekers must remain voluntary. "The government has confirmed in its resolution that Lithuania can take in up to 250 migrants and asylum seekers over the course of two years," she added.
Neverthless, there are some politicians and media prepared to stick their heads above the parapet to face the populism and suggest instead that it's time for the region to stand up and be counted as fully participating members of the EU. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves criticized his country's reaction to the issue and asked: "Where is our solidarity?" Estonia, with a population of 1.3mn, would have been asked to host just 738 migrants over the next two years.
Eesti Paevaleht praised him in an editorial. "Estonia cannot be only on the receiving end, but needs to give something as well," the newspaper wrote. "These are values that must be recognised."
Yet in the wake of the global economic crisis, the Central European governments’ populist posturing is perhaps unsurprising. As they struggle to catch up with their western peers in the European club, there is widespread anger at Greece’s attempts to wring further concessions from the bloc. The immigrant issue threatens to add to this populist anti-EU wave.
"The effect on domestic debates around Europe is profound," writes Jan Techau at think tank Carnegie Europe. "Majority societies in Europe - politically vulnerable after years of economic crisis, unaddressed identity issues, fear of globalisation, and weak political leaderships - have become susceptible to the temptations of populist, xenophobic, even racist politics."
The Baltics and Central Europe are clearly not alone in their objections; debate is raging across the continent. Yet it is rarely led by governments.
The EU’s eastern members are also accused of having short memories and blind spots. Thousands from the region were given refuge during communist times as they fled to the West. Over 250,000 Hungarians turned up in Austria in the wake of the failed revolution in 1956; over 160,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled West in 1968; up to 150,000 Poles in 1981.
Central Europe and the Baltics are also suffering serious migration problems and could do with some more immigrants.
While Hungary has experienced a huge rise in the number of asylum seekers in recent months – applications per million capita exploded to over 3,300 in the first quarter of 2015, three times the level seen by second-placed Sweden – at the same time the number of Hungarians willing to emigrate has doubled in the past year to 10% of the population, according to a survey from Tarki released in May.
Populations are falling across the region as those emigration flows to the richer west persist and birth rates dwindle. A World Bank report in March noted the very real economic strain that will inevitably accompany workforce shrinkage unless states in the region rapidly institute a broad-based programme targeted at demographic renewal. Besides boosting fertility and pushing people to work longer before retirement, the report suggests they need to encourage immigration.
On average, the Baltics have lost 20% of their total populations since 1992. Usually a positive sign in an economy recovering from a deep crisis, an ongoing drop in Estonian unemployment and rise in wages has economists worrying that investment and economic growth are suffering from the tightening labour market. Indeed, economic growth has tailed off in the country.
On top of that, many see the trend hitting state finances in the non-too-distant future. The dwindling numbers of young and working age people will only worsen the coming pensions crunch in the region.
The fact that second pillar reforms have been largely dumped through the crisis won’t help those workers that remain to support the increasing relative weight of the elderly. It won't do much to pay for growing health spending either.
Meanwhile, an ageing workforce will have a greater degree of obsolete skills, depressing needed productivity gains. Older workers will also have less time to save, lowering the capital for investment.
Clearly, none of this will help the region's economic growth. The challenge for the Baltics and Central Europe will be to keep income convergence with the wealthier EU economies on track as younger generations continue to decrease in size, the World Bank warns.
Inward migration – alongside fertility increases - can contribute to a rebalancing of the population structure and increase the size of younger generations, the report states. Indeed, even those economies to the west seeing huge numbers of immigrants need them. "All EU countries … will require immigrants to keep the working-age population from shrinking," according to the World Bank. "Embrace immigration as part of the solution," it urges.
However, as so often, populist politics is working in direct opposition to longer term interests. While the resistance to migrants in the region – who likely don't want to stay anyway – is steeped in the economic disappointment of EU membership, shutting the door might only deepen the discontent in the long run.
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