VISEGRAD: United front shows signs of splitting as migrant crisis stakes rise

VISEGRAD: United front shows signs of splitting as migrant crisis stakes rise
By Tim Gosling September 22, 2015

Foreign ministers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia met with their counterpart from Luxembourg, holder of the EU presidency, on September 21, but failed to establish any plan for compromise ahead of crunch talks over the migrant crisis later this week. Driven by domestic political issues, that leaves them looking set on a collision course with the rest of the bloc that could threaten the entire European project. However, cracks are increasingly evident in the Central European front. 

The Visegrad get together came in preparation for emergency meetings of EU interior ministers and leaders on September 22 and 23. Brussels is likely to see long and bitter debate, with Central Europe's leaders set to continue their campaign against quotas for distributing 120,000 migrants that have arrived in southern member states in recent weeks. 

However, it looks a tough fight. With Berlin in the driving seat and the crisis reaching new peaks, the interior ministers meeting will now need only a majority to enforce the quotas, meaning the Visegrad states will be expected to offer significant compromise in order to avoid handed mandatory orders. The pressure is now producing signs of a split not only across the EU, but within Visegrad also. 

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who will chair the September 22 meeting, travelled to Prague to meet with his four Visegrad peers in a bid to lay the groundwork for that compromise, but delivered little in the way of progress. “There are still a few problems to solve,” said Asselborn, noting somewhat pitifully “we still have 20 hours.”

"Luxembourg's presidency is making its [best efforts] to prevent the gaps between countries, taking its work very seriously," he added. "We were only trying to understand the situation better," Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said, according to CTK.

Rough ride

The lack of progress at the last minute dash to defuse the dangerous situation clearly suggest the Visegrad states are in for a rough ride at this week's meetings. That likely reflects a growing split in the approach of the Visegrad states themselves as much as with the region and the rest of the EU. There are strong signs that at least half of the countries in Central Europe are ready to shift their positions seriously enough to evade a diplomatic meltdown.    

Poland and the Czech Republic are increasingly talking of accepting higher numbers than would be required by the quotas. However, Slovakia and Hungary remain unmoved in their defiance. As ever, domestic political concerns are vying with EU policy. While Warsaw and Prague are clearly preparing to back down, they are dressing it up for the audiences at home that they have helped whip into a fearful frenzy by digging in their heels in the illusionary fight against quotas.

Interior Minister Milan Chovanec led a Czech bid to undermine the quotas on technical grounds, suggesting it might be illegal under EU law to keep refugees involuntarily in one particular country. He also said it’s not clear if national parliaments are entitled to block the quotas. However, more than one other official in Prague has suggested the Czech Republic could open its doors to tens of thousands of migrants under the right conditions. 

Using similar language, Poland's Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna said ahead of the meeting in Prague that his country is ready to take in more migrants than Brussels is demanding. "Poland is able to take in more refugees on a voluntary basis than those stipulated by the compulsory quotas proposed by the European Commission," he wrote in an opinion piece published by several leading newspapers on September 20, without specifying a number. 

The EU plan would have Poland accommodate 9,000. Warsaw has so far agreed to accept only 2,000 refugees. Schetyna was sure to include demands of his own also, including closure of EU borders and changes to migration policy.

The contrast with the message out of Budapest couldn't be starker, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban told his parliament yet again of the "insanity" of allowing Europe to be overwhelmed by the refugees "laying siege" to it. Lawmakers then passed new legislation to allow the use of the army to prevent migrants "breaking the doors" of the EU.

After Hungary built a controversial fence on its southern border with Serbia to stem the thousands crossing, the flow of migrants trying to make it to Austria, Germany and Scandinavia turned left to head through Croatia. Zagreb has already called for help from the EU to deal with the numbers. Budapest is now rushing to finish a new fence along its Croatian border, and plans another on its eastern border with Romania. 

It also launched a series of ads in Lebanese and Jordanian newspapers on September 21 warning would-be migrants of new draconian laws against illegal border crossings. Following widely-condemned strong arm tactics against migrants earlier this month by the police, the moves denote little appetite for compromise in Hungary, which has seen over 160,000 migrants arrive in the country already this year. Confrontation with Brussels is, however, only grist to the mill of Orban, who has smaller fish to fry in the form of the far-right opposition at home.

Second split

Much has been made of the fact that the migrant crisis has set up an east v. west split within the EU, with France and Germany calling for a strong commitment to help the likes of Greece and Italy cope with the hordes fleeing war and oppression in the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. However, the issue also highlights an apparent division amongst the Visegrad countries, one that was marked already by reactions to the crisis in Ukraine and attitudes towards Russia.

Germany - EU heavyweight and a dominant force in Central Europe - clearly has greater clout in some regional capitals than others. The likes of Poland continue to soften their stance, despite elections set for October. 

At the same time, Warsaw's fading opposition to the EU plans can also be viewed through the prism of domestic politics. In part at least, it is a move of growing desperation on the part of the ruling Civic Platform to make up ground on the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) as October elections approach. 

The centre right governing party likely hopes the softening in policy will help mobilize the liberal Polish voters that gave it victory in the last two Polish elections. PiS officials recently suggested migrants were coming to Poland to “wage jihad” and “establish sharia zones, like in Sweden.”

The move will also push PO closer to the policy being pursued by former party leader and PM Donald Tusk in his role as president of the European Council. With party fortunes having plummeted since Tusk left for Brussels last year, PO's gambit is to reaffirm its connection to Poland's political heavyweight.

In Slovakia, by way of contrast, Prime Minister Robert Fico is reinforcing his Smer party's support ahead of March elections with staunch opposition to immigration. Support for Smer increased 1.7pp in the last month to 37.2%, according to a poll released on September 18. Populist economic measures worth around €200mn have been rolled out as Fico seeks to avoid the need to find a coalition partner next year. The government insist Slovakia, which has a population of around 5.5mn and has granted asylum to just 650 refugees since splitting from Czechoslovakia in 1993, will accept no more than 100 refugees, adding that they must all be Christian.

Fico has often sought to perform a fine balancing act to keep Slovakia technically in line with Brussels while keeping his options open. Nowhere has this been more clearly illustrated than in his ongoing flirtations with Moscow. Until no he has sought to avoid a direct clash with the West, but the strident reaction to the migrant crisis will only raise suspicions in Brussels and Washington over where his loyalties truly lie.

Meanwhile in Hungary, the rising confrontation with Brussels is also boosting Orban's ratings. The populist leader has long enjoyed playing to the gallery at home with heated exchanges with the EU, however, he has been forced to step further to the right by the rise of the nationalist Jobbik party as his closest contender. 

While Budapest's close relations with Moscow - alongside several domestic issues - appeared to dent the approval ratings of the ruling Fidesz in recent months, Orban's inflammatory rhetoric throughout the refugee crisis appears to be pulling voters back to the fold

Fiddling with fire

As ever, the risk is that local political concerns will trump the wider vital issues at play in the EU. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on September 21 that he fears the coming EU summit will end in discord and only widen the differences between member states. 

In Visegrad its not just Orban that enjoys leveraging EU crisis to gain domestic political advantage. Fico, in opposition in Slovakia at the time, played fast and loose with a bloc teetering on the edge in 2012 as he used the Eurozone debt crisis to depose the government and install himself in office.

While political leaders in the region are jockeying for position, people continue to die in their bid to make it to Europe, and the EU project takes more damage. The pace and fury of the migrant crisis means that the unwieldy EU heads into the emergency meetings without a plan. There is little confidence that agreement will emerge. It is essentially the ultimate question that all EU crises have asked: more Europe? 

Suggestions from German officials in mid-September that Visegrad states should have EU funds pulled should they fail to show "solidarity" are little more than an idle threat. However, it reiterates the view that states towards the east of the bloc are yet to take on the responsibilities of club membership, but are very fond of the perks.

While Central European states have gained hugely from EU membership, the rhetoric at home insists they deserve more as disgruntlement expands over the failure to catch up with states to the west economically. The vision of hundreds of thousands of migrants from outside "jumping the queue" plays all too easily into the hands of nationalists and populists. 

However, the breakdown of trust between member states - illustrated most forcibly by the return of border controls - threatens to push Visegrad into reverse. The huge dependence of the local economies on export demand out of the EU means they have most to lose from the return of border restrictions. 

The German supply chain that trails though the region would start to choke on delayed delivery and increased paperwork. Threats from German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel that his country could revise its approach to the open borders of the EU reverberated loudly across Visegrad, especially when checks were set up at southern posts in mid-September.

Ashley Owen, head of investment strategies at AES International is just one of many to point out the danger. "The tightening of border controls in parts of Eastern Europe, as a consequence of the refugee crisis, could be the start of a worrying trend which may damage European GDP," he said in a statement. “All of this is very disappointing as the influx of such high numbers of people at working age should provide a real economic boost over the coming decades if handled correctly."

Indeed, as bne IntelliNews has pointed out, the opposition to immigration from governments in a region facing a dire demographic picture - in which the population is aging rapidly and the young fleeing abroad - makes little sense economically or geo-politically; it serves only provincial political goals. 

That's a reality that Prague has started to point out to the Czech nation as it buckles under international pressure. While reiterating opposition to mandatory quotas, Czech officials now say the country could accept a much larger number of refugees than the 4,000 in the EU plan. Human Rights Minister Jiri Dienstbier said recently that given labour requirements in the country, it could take up to 15,000.

On September 21, more ministers were wheeled out to massage the message to the EU and Czechs. While the interior minister suggests quotas are not compatible with EU law, the defence minister was busy pledging to send troops to the Middle East to help secure refugee facilities in the region.

True to stereotype, the Czechs have arguably proved the most practical in Visegrad throughout the migrant crisis thus far. That again illustrates again the pull factor of domestic politics. The stability of the coalition government has only been increasing in recent months as the economy barrels along at the top of the EU charts, while it's not due to face the ballot box for another three years.

However, the opposition from the east end of the bloc, and consequent threat to the wider EU project, is still likely to be enough to derail a solution either way for now, suggest analysts at Teneo Intelligence. "A quota for the EU-wide distribution of refugees will not be agreed this week," they insist. "As resistance remains strong – especially in Eastern Europe – the most likely path forward is that the EU reaches out to Turkey with an offer to help accommodate Syrian refugees there."