Visegrad splits widen over migrant quotas

By bne IntelliNews September 24, 2015

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Visegrad countries expressed anger on September 23 over the way they had been elbowed aside when the EU voted to implement mandatory migrant quotas, and they continued to protest throughout an extraordinary summit of the European Council. However, the splits in the Central European group are only widening.

Slovakia furiously insisted it will mount a legal challenge to the migrant quotas, which were passed by a qualified majority vote of interior ministers on September 22 over the objections of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. However, the Czech Republic, while making the right noises to suggest support for its Visegrad peers, agreed to toe Brussels' line, and pledged it will not launch legal action against the plan. 

Hungary followed its increasingly maverick line as it defended its "democratic rights" and proposed an alternative six-point plan, based on a radical budgetary revamp to raise funds for the effort to stem the flow of immigrants at the EU border.

Poland spent most of the last 24 hours following the interior ministers' meeting defending its decision to split the V4's united front on opposing migrant quotas by voting in favour alongside Germany and France.

However, such provincial issues were swept aside in Brussels. The EU appeared determined to push through measures - short term at least - to try to stem a crisis that threatens to overwhelm the bloc.

Amid claims from the east that the plan is a "diktat" from Berlin, Germany and France were clearly alarmed enough about the mounting deaths, swelling refugee numbers, and rising threat to the wider EU project to make sure the plan had enough momentum to run over the obstacles in the east.

Indeed, just ahead of the meeting, the European Commission announced it has adopted 40 infringement decisions against 19 member states for their failure to to make the European asylum system work. While the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and all of the Baltics featured, so too did Germany. Slovakia was one of the few states not to receive the admonishment.  

On top of the quotas, the EU summit looked to agree several other points at a meeting less spiky than many had feared. However, controversial proposals, such as for the EU to take control of the Greek border, were not pushed through, while efforts to win the cooperation of Turkey - currently host to 2mn Syrian refugees - appear slow.

Among the short-term agreements reached ahead of October's regular summit was €1bn in funding to agencies to address urgent humanitarian needs, as well as money for countries in the Middle East and Western Balkans to help them better cope with the influx. 

European Council President Donald Tusk clearly warned that a systemic response is vital, and hinted at criticism of German policy. The former Polish president also sought to take the focus off the quotas ahead of the meeting of EU heads of state. 

"We are talking about millions of potential refugees trying to reach Europe, not thousands," he wrote on Twitter. "[The] most urgent question today is how we can manage our borders effectively; can't speak of a common European migration policy otherwise."


That seeks to address the concerns of members states across the spectrum, which have demanded action to stem the inflow of refugees, alongside accommodation for the hundreds of thousands that have already applied for asylum this year. 

A joint statement from the Visegrad Four issued just ahead of the summit called for a move to  "refocus the EU debate on core priorities and real solutions to the current migration-related challenges", and stressed "full readiness to strengthen our engagement [regarding…} effective management of the root causes of migration flows". Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of quotas.

That speaks volumes about the split in Visegrad, which has been growing throughout the series of crises hitting the EU since 2008. The migrant crisis threatens to be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and is straining the V4 to the limit.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico is now vying with Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban to be the bad boy of Europe. Even his own EU party grouping has suggested throwing him out on his ear. “The Slovak premier has embarrassed the whole progressive family.” said Gianni Pittella, president of the Socialists & Democrats (PES) faction in the European Parliament. He called for the start of procedures for the suspension of Fico's Smer party from the PES.

The Slovak PM, however, has appeared to be in a state of apoplexy ever since the vote on quotas, and was in no mood to back down. On September 23 he reiterated that Bratislava will file a lawsuit with the EU General Court in Luxembourg against the plan.

"We will go in two directions: first one, we will file a charge at the court in Luxembourg," he thundered before heading to the summit. "Secondly, we will not implement the (decision) of the interior ministers."

The PM has said Slovakia will proudly face EU infringement proceedings rather than back down. A refusal to accept the quotas could cost Slovakia a financial penalty of around about €2m, according to some media reports.

"We have been refusing this nonsense from the beginning, and as a sovereign country we have the right to sue," he added, warming to his theme. 

The stance, however, may be somewhat calculated, with support for his Smer party increasing through the migrant crisis as Fico eyes another majority in the March elections. 

Mending fences

Highlighting such pressure, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said his country will not challenge the quota system, despite earlier hints. Sobotka reiterated his objection to the quota system but stressed the EU project is more important, in comments that look designed to earn the sort of respect Poland has received from Germany and others since it split with Visegrad to support the motion on September 22.

“Although I don't like using the quotas, I disagree with them and we voted against them, Europe must not fall apart on the migration crisis”, Sobotka said, according to CTK. “Therefore I don't want to further escalate the tension by (court) charges. You can stretch the rope only to certain point, then it parts. There are more battles ahead of us over a realistic approach to the migrant crisis and we need our partners in Europe to listen to our arguments.”

Warsaw spent the hours ahead of the summit expressing "surprise the V4 argument has become so vocal in public debate," as the Minister of Defence Tomasz Siemioniak put it. In response to bitter recriminations from the rest of Central Europe to Poland's vote for the quotas, he sought to remind the rest of the region of their perceived treachery over the Ukraine crisis. 

"The V4 group is certainly valuable, but there are issues in which we cooperate and there are ones in which we don't cooperate," he said. "For example, Russia and the issue of sanctions, where the differences [between V4 countries] were clear."

Other Polish officials claimed to be seeking to mend a growing schism that has been discussed in the west of the bloc. "We cannot restore the division between eastern and western Europe. That would be the worst thing that could happen to us," Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna said.

The migrants issue is, however, causing internal political tensions. President Andrzej Duda requested to meet Home Affairs Minister Teresa Piotrowska to find out why the government voted as it did. The president also said he woud like to know what benefits Poland will receive from its decision to support quotas. Duda's PiS party looks set to replace the centre- right PO - formerly headed by Tusk - at elections in October.

New tack

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country has moved onto the frontline, with hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving over the past few months, kept up the rhetoric, accusing Germany of “moral imperialism”. However, his words exhibited a softer approach than seen for some time, and he set off on a new tack, presenting an alternative plan to the summit.

Speaking in Bavaria before the meeting, Orban said his country has a “democratic right” to a different approach, according to AFP. “I don’t doubt Germany’s right to define its moral obligations for itself. They can decide if they accept every refugee or not… [but] that should only be compulsory for them”, Orban said. “We are Hungarians however, we cannot think with German minds. Hungary should have the right to control the impact of a mass migration”, he said. “The Hungarian people don’t want this, we ask that the wishes of Hungarians be respected.”

Orban reiterated his objection to mandatory quotas and said he would only consider voluntary measures to accept asylum-seekers. “Quotas and contingents are two different things. We reject the former, but are ready to discuss the latter”, he said. 

That line in itself helped cast Slovakia's Fico as extreme, and was likely influenced by the fact the EU had the previous day postponed a decision on redistributing 54,000 migrants from Hungary, agreeing under the quota plan only to spread 66,000 from fellow frontline states Italy and Greece.

Orban proposed at the summit that each member state should pay 1% of its income from the union, plus an additional 1% of its contributions to it, into a fund to improve conditions for refugees in the Middle East, while strengthening Europe’s borders.

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