VISEGRAD: EU warning on migrant quotas raises the stakes

VISEGRAD: EU warning on migrant quotas raises the stakes
Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have all refused to take any refugees, while Czechia has taken just 12.
By Tim Gosling in Prague June 8, 2017

Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaoralek announced on June 7 that he will meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker later this week to discuss the position of the Visegrad Four on the EU’s migrant quotas.

The meeting will come in the wake of a warning by the European Commission on June 6 that member states that don’t follow the quota rules for asylum seekers could face infringement proceedings. The rebuke from Brussels follows shortly after Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec – who has espoused increasingly reactionary stances in recent months – announced that a cabinet meeting had agreed the country will not accept any more migrants, citing raised security concerns.

The EU has shown increasing confidence to take on member states flouting bloc legislation in the name of populism since Emmanuel Macron defeated the far-right Front National in May’s French election. The Visegrad states have felt the brunt of that robust turn, and they appear to be on a crash course with Brussels.

Junker will be in Prague on June 9 to attend a conference on EU defence and security, an issue that is popular amongst the governments of Central European member states. However, the commission chief wants Zaoralek to explain the position of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia regarding the 2015 decision by the EU to redistribute 120,000 refugees that have arrived in the bloc, mostly in Greece and Italy.

Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have all refused to take any refugees. Hungary and Slovakia have both lodged cases against the quotas with the European Court of Justice. 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.

EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos warned that action against states that refuse to accept their responsibilities could be announced very soon. That puts the spotlight on Visegrad. The same official threatened in mid May to launch an infringement process should Hungary and Poland fail to comply with the quotas.

“We will specify our position on opening infringement procedures against the member states that have not relocated anyone at all or have not pledged any places for almost one year since we all decided to do it together,” he said, according to Euractiv.

A similar message was issued by commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud, who told reporters in Brussels that EU states need to start relocating people and pledging places, or face sanctions, reported EU Observer.

Similar threats were made around a year ago, but went nowhere. However, the EU’s latest warning comes as Brussels shows increased confidence to take on the populists in power across much of Visegrad. The European Parliament called on May 17 for the Article 7 “nuclear option” to be launched against Hungary over Budapest’s efforts to close the Central European University and impose strict regulations on NGOs. The Commission said the same day it will move forward on an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning its asylum legislation.

The same day, the rumbling confrontation with Poland over the rule of law in the country was put before the European Council for the first time since a probe was launched in January 2016.

The willingness to take on the illiberal axis of Hungary and Poland also likely stems from the fact that the rest of the Visegrad group has shown clearly that it will not support the duo’s efforts to incite “revolution” within the EU. Migrant quotas is practically the only high profile issue that the four agree upon.

Thus far, Warsaw and Budapest have shrugged off the EU push, confident that Brussels is powerless to hit them with Article 7, which could see their voting rights in the EU removed, as they can protect one another with a veto. However, suggestions that the issues could be linked to EU funds has rattled the pair before.

A drop in absorption of EU funds saw investment sag last year, draining economic growth in both countries. Poland is the largest recipient under the 2014-20 programme with around €90bn available. Hungary and the Czech Republic could get €25bn a piece, Slovakia €15bn.

Thus far, Visegrad governments have responded with defiance. Warsaw has said that it would be better to face EU sanctions than accept the 6,000 or so migrants it is due to house.

Chovanec said on June 5 that the Czech interior ministry will prepare the country’s defence for possible proceedings by the commission. The country could be fined tens of millions of euros, he noted.

His Polish counterpart, while not referring to the EU threats directly, flagged up the stance of the nationalist PiS government to the domestic audience on June 7. The previous government condoned "recruitment bases for terrorists being created in Poland” by agreeing to accept migrants, Mariusz Blaszczak said.