The European Union can force its members to accept refugees from other EU states, the bloc’s top court ruled on Wednesday.
The decision was not only seen as a defeat for Slovakia and Hungary, which had sued against an EU quota plan to reduce the burden on southern European states, but also for Poland and the Czech Republic, which have also refused to accept refugees from Italy and Greece, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers from African and Middle Eastern countries are stranded. In its ruling, the European Court of Justice said it “dismissed in its entirety the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary” with the aim of “helping Italy and Greece deal with the massive inflow of migrants.”
But despite its significance, it remains to be seen whether the ECJ’s landmark ruling will help revive the EU’s flagging refugee resettlement scheme. Two years after EU interior ministers adopted the plan at the height of the migrant crisis, and with the relocation scheme due to expire this month, less than a quarter of the agreed-upon 120,000 migrants have been resettled from Italy or Greece to other EU countries.
And this is not due solely to the lack of cooperation from a handful of Eastern European nations. Malta, the EU’s smallest country, is the only country in the bloc that has met its target – 131 refugees –, with just Finland and Ireland anywhere close to fulfilling their own (not very high) quotas. Germany, one of the most welcoming countries toward refugees, has received just 7,852 of the 27,500 refugees it was supposed to take in under the plan.
“Hungary and Slovakia should hold firm and defy the dictate from Brussels.”
But after Germany took in more than 900,000 refugees in 2015 and another 280,000 last year, the topic has become highly controversial there too and few politicians are clamoring for Berlin to accommodate yet more refugees as the September 24 parliamentary election looms. After the ECJ made its decision on Wednesday, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is expected to crash into the German parliament after the election, voiced full-throated support for Budapest and Bratislava. “Hungary and Slovakia should hold firm and defy the dictate from Brussels,” said Alexander Gauland, one of the populist party’s two nominees for the federal election.
The Hungarian government, for one, seems determined to do exactly that. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the ruling “outrageous and irresponsible” and said his country would continue to block migrants from Italy and Greece. “The real battle is only just beginning,” Mr. Szijjártó warned darkly. “Politics has raped European law.”
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, on the other hand, said his country wanted to be a core EU member and would respect the ECJ’s decision. But that does not mean that the EU should expect Slovakia to fully collaborate with the resettlement plan. “Our stance on quotas does not change,” Mr. Fico said, adding that Bratislava would keep pursuing European solidarity in other ways than being forced to take in migrants “who don’t want to be here anyway.”
The EU adopted its controversial refugee redistribution scheme in September 2015, after months of haggling as the migrant crisis unfolded. Thousands of asylum seekers entered the EU daily, mostly through Italy and Greece, the bloc’s two southernmost countries. Four Eastern European nations, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, voted against the resettlement plan but were outvoted. The latter two then took their case to the ECJ.
According to the interior ministers’ plan at the time, Slovakia would have received 902 refugees from Italy and Greece, and Hungary would have taken in 1,294 (see map below). Since then, however, amid fierce opposition with often unvarnished xenophobic undertones from government officials, Slovakia has taken in a meager 16 refugees and Hungary has not accepted any.
The Polish and Czech governments, which have staunchly supported Hungary’s rebellion against quotas and face infringement proceedings launched by the European Commission, have dug their heels in.
Of the 6,182 refugees Poland was supposed to receive under the relocation mechanism, it has so far let in none. The Czech Republic was supposed to take in 2,691 and has accepted 12.
As a precaution, the EU’s executive body threatened yesterday to ratchet up its disciplinary measures against the potential violators. The governments of those countries might be sued through the ECJ, the EU migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said in Brussels. Infringement proceedings can end with hefty penalties if a country is found guilty, though the process can take years.
But just like Budapest, Prague and Warsaw show themselves unfazed by the threats. Czech President Miloš Zeman said Wednesday it would be better for the Prague to forgo EU subsidies altogether than to be forced by the EU to accept refugees. Poland’s right-wing government also said it would not take in any asylum seekers despite the ECJ’s ruling, with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo saying, “This absolutely does not change the stance of the Polish government with respect to migration policy.”
It’s not just Brussels that is losing patience with the uncooperative behavior of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In Berlin, the social democratic contender for the chancellery, Martin Schulz, has threatened to block EU structural funds from flowing to countries that refuse to accept refugees.
Those funds include billions of euros in legally protected aid for structurally weak regions, many of which are in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Mr. Schulz, his threats could not even realized in the current budget period, which lasts until 2020.
For many German voters, frustrations are compounded by concern about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A refugee deal agreed between the EU and Turkey in spring last year helped mitigate the number of refugees pouring into Europe, but recently Mr. Erdogan has been threatening to cancel the deal if EU accession talks with his country end amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Ankara and Brussels.
In March of this year, the Turkish interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said, “If you want, we’ll send you 15,000 refugees every month – it would destroy you!”
However, despite Mr. Erdogan’s threats, it is unlikely that there will be a repeat of 2015, when millions of refugees poured into Europe. Turkey has sealed its 911-kilometer (566-mile) border to Syria with walls and barbed wire, in effect stopping the flow of refugees there.
That closure has the additional effect of reducing pressure on the West, though the situation in the refugee camps on Greece’s Aegean islands is still catastrophic. In one camp on the island of Samos, there are nearly 2,400 people squeezed into a space designed for 700.
In Italy and Greece, there are still more than 90,000 refugees waiting to move to another EU country. As the resettlement mechanism is due to expire in a couple of weeks, the clock is ticking fast.
Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent in Vienna. Gerd Höhler is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Athens, Greece. Jean-Michel Hauteville, an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin, also contributed to this report. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.