Refugee Quotas

European Disunity Growing Over Refugees

Refugees Greece AP
Refugees landing in Greece.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The European Union is cracking under the pressure of the refugee crisis, with countries at loggerheads over issues such as the distribution of the asylum seekers and the protection of the bloc’s external borders.
  • Facts


    • Interior and justice ministers are to discuss a temporary suspension of the Schengen treaty when they meet on Thursday and Friday.
    • Hungary is considering joining Slovakia in a legal action against Brussels at the European Court of Justice.
    • Sweden wants to redistribute some of the thousands of refugees already on its soil.
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Rifts are widening between the European Union member states as they grapple with finding a solution to the refugee crisis. Greece has been criticized for not doing its duty as the first entry point into the European Union and Slovakia is retreating further into its isolationist position.

The tension has reached boiling point. On Wednesday Slovakia filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice, contesting the September 22 decision by the E.U. ministers to redistribute 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary to the other E.U. countries. Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania had voted against the plan.

At a meeting of the E.U.’s 28 interior and justice ministers taking place on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, Slovakia’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Robert Kaliňák, can expect firm opposition.

“If all the E.U. states were to reinstate national border controls, then no more refugees would leave Greece and Athens would be left alone with the problem”

E.U. Negotiator

Now many don’t want to accept the majority decision. Slovakia, which is being asked to accept 802 refugees, doesn’t want to take any at all. Hungary is considering joining its northern neighbor in its legal action. In Poland, the new conservative government doesn’t want to fulfill the previous government’s commitment to take part in the redistribution plans.

The Central and Eastern Europeans are attracting the ire of other countries that are taking large numbers of refugees: Germany, Finland, Sweden, Austria and the Benelux states are pulling ever closer together. They want the redistribution to be systematic and shared across the entire European Union. Diplomats say the European Commission is supposed to have a long-term refugee distribution plan on the table by January.

Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, will insist that the plan go forward when he attends the ministerial meeting in Brussels. Germany is expecting up to 1 million asylum seekers this year, four times as many as arrived in 2014. Berlin wants its E.U. partners to do more to share the burden.

It’s not just the Eastern Europeans that are irking the countries doing most of the heavy lifting. Greece is also causing increasing irritation. More than 740,000 people have arrived on the shores of Greece this year and the government in Athens is not perceived to be doing enough in its position as first entry point on the bloc’s external border with Turkey.

Refugees arrive GreeceLesbos AP
Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. Source: AP


E.U. diplomats complain that there’s a shortage of everything, from accommodation, to blankets to Internet access. Greece, they say, is not making use of the help which has been offered, including fingerprinting equipment which the E.U. sent them; nor have they made effective use of the officials of the border protection agency Frontex which have been deployed there.

Greek inaction could eventually have consequences. The countries where the unregistered asylum seekers from Greece eventually end up are tending more and more towards a hard line.

“If all the E.U. states were to reinstate national border controls, then no more refugees would leave Greece and Athens would be left alone with the problem,” a negotiator in Brussels told Handelsblatt.

The British media reported this week that there were informal discussions within the E.U. about suspending Greece from Schengen. Athens this week insisted, however, that there were no formal talks about any such move. Greek government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili said Greece’s suspension from Schengen had “never been raised in the E.U. framework.”

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is one of those who have openly pushed for Greece’s expulsion from Schengen, arguing that such a move has widespread support among E.U. countries.

“We just cannot put up with a member country that has openly given up on safeguarding the Schengen area borders,” he said last week. “Then Schengen is of no use.”

There is also the possibility that the entire Schengen system be suspended. The first signs of a move down this path could come as early as this week’s meeting of interior and justice ministers. Luxemburg’s justice minister, Etienne Schneider, who is chairing the meeting, has put the theme of suspending free travel within the Schengen zone on the agenda. According to Article 26 of the Schengen Treaty, which covers 26 European countries, national border controls can be introduced for a six-month period. They can then be extended three times, for a maximum period of two years. This gives Brussels a way forward without completely burying the treaty.

Sweden, which has taken in a particularly high number of refugees, wants more than just border controls. Stockholm is now trying to redistribute some of the refugees on Swedish soil to other E.U. countries. It’s possible in theory.

On September 22, the E.U. interior ministers created a provision for such cases. A maximum of 54,000 of the 120,000 migrants in countries like Sweden and Germany can be redistributed to other states.

Meanwhile, the E.U. has sought to limit the flow of refugees into Europe through a deal with Turkey, which is currently hosting up to 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Last Sunday the bloc’s 28 leaders held a summit with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, during which they pledged €3 billion in aid to Ankara in return for more help in dealing with the crisis. They also promised to “re-energize” Turkey’s long-standing aspirations to join the European Union.

The first Turkish moves occurred already this week. In a sweep on Monday, just hours after the summit, Turkish authorities detained 1,300 migrants, as well as a number of people smugglers on the Turkish coast. The people were preparing to make the perilous journey across the Aegen Sea to Greece.


Ruth Berschens is Handelsblatt’s Brussels bureau chief. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the author:



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