The European Commission has increased the pressure on Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in a long-running dispute over the resettlement of refugees in Europe.
The EU executive on Tuesday took legal action against the three central European member states, accusing them of violating EU law by refusing to participate in the resettlement program. They could face financial sanctions if Europe’s top court sides with Brussels.
At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, a majority of EU member states agreed to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers in an effort to relieve pressure on Italy and Greece, the main entry points into Europe.
The plan calls for each member state to accept a quota of refugees. EU migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulos said this was a legal obligation for member states, not a choice.
“I regret to see that despite our repeated calls to pledge to relocate, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have not yet taken the necessary action,” Mr. Avramopoulos said at a press conference in Strasbourg, according to Reuters news agency.
“An infringement proceeding is too harsh a weapon.”
Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia voted against the 2015 resettlement plan. Poland voted for it, but parliamentary elections subsequently brought a nationalist government to power, which has refused to accept asylum seekers under the quota system. Slovakia, which has accepted a small number of asylum seekers, was not targeted by the EU legal action.
“The Czech Republic does not agree with the system of relocation,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. “With regard to the worsened security situation in Europe and dysfunctionality of the quota system, it will not participate in it,” he said.
Germany was one of the main supporters of the contentious resettlement program. Berlin has clashed repeatedly with its central European neighbors, particularly Hungary, over refugee policy. But Herbert Reul, a leading German member of the European Parliament, said the EU had gone too far by taking legal action.
“It is unfair and unacceptable when some member states take no refugees,” Mr. Reul, who chairs the center-right Christian Democratic faction at the European level, told public broadcaster ARD. “At the same time, an infringement procedure is too harsh a weapon. Because emotions are in play here, you will get the exact opposite of what you really want to achieve.”
In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to open Germany’s borders to thousands of asylum seekers in Hungary, amid concerns about the conditions they faced there. Overall, Germany took in nearly 1 million asylum seekers, many from North Africa and the Middle East, during the height of the crisis.
Germany subsequently tightened its rules and started sending some asylum seekers back to the EU member states where they originally registered. But in April, Berlin stopped sending asylum seekers back to Hungary due to concerns that Budapest was not treating them in accordance with EU law.
EU member states are currently in negotiations to reform the bloc’s asylum system. Under current law, known as the Dublin system, asylum seekers should register and undergo processing in the first EU member state they enter. But the system failed during the refugee crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers were allowed to move north toward Austria and Germany.
Reform proposals for the Dublin system propose resettling asylum seekers across Europe under an quota system. Poland and Hungary have both rejected the proposal, offering instead to provide personnel to strengthen the European Union’s external borders.
EU member states will meet again at the end of the month to discuss asylum reform. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has proposed that the EU member states shelve the resettlement issue for now, instead focusing on areas of consensus.
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org