The European Commission has launched a legal case against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, for refusing to take in asylum seekers, escalating a bitter feud within the 28-nation bloc about how to deal with the Pandora's box opened up Angela Merkel's 2015 "Open Door" policy (since shut).
The reason for Brussels' ire is that the eurosceptic governments in Poland and Hungary refused to take in anyone under a plan agreed by a majority of EU leaders in 2015 to relocate migrants from frontline states Italy and Greece to help ease their burden. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people but has since said it would not welcome more. It is perhaps worth noting that the three countries are among the very few who have had virtually no terrorist attacks in the past two years.
At stake in the dispute is the bloc's unity, already tested by Britain's unprecedented decision to leave, weak economies and higher support for eurosceptic parties across the EU. Beyond its borders, the EU is also facing what it says is a "threat" from Russia and a foundering new relationship with President Donald Trump. But two years of arm-wrestling have so far produced no results and EU leaders are unlikely to be able to break the impasse when they discuss the matter next week in Brussels, according to Reuters.
In September 2015, EU ministers took up a plan to relocate over 100,000 migrants who have already reached the continent, throughout Europe. However, not all EU states have found the measures acceptable, saying that the migrant crisis cannot be solved through obligatory quotas. The Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary have staunchly opposed the plan. Despite warnings from Brussels, Budapest is determined to tighten its policy towards asylum seekers and carry on with its own border fence plan.
It all culminated yesterday, when Europe finally took legal action against the holdout states.
"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," the EU's migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told a news conference cited by Reuters. He said the Commission was therefore launching so-called infringement procedures against the three, a way for the executive arm to take to task countries that fail to meet their obligations.
It opens the way for months, even years, of legal wrangling before a top EU court could potentially impose fines.
Earlier, in an statement the commission said that the three EU states have acted “in breach of their legal obligations,” adding that it had previously warned the countries to observe “their commitments to Greece, Italy and other member states.” The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland “have not yet taken the necessary action,” the statement says, claiming that the three EU members “have not yet relocated a single person.”
“Against this background… the Commission has decided to launch infringement procedures against these three Member States.” Since January, other countries within the bloc have relocated almost 10,300 people from Italy and Greece, according to the commission. “The pace of relocation has significantly increased,” it added, saying it has witnessed “a fivefold increase” compared to the same period last year. In total, nearly 21,000 asylum-seekers have been distributed throughout Europe, some 14,000 from Greece and the rest from Italy.
The prosecuted states were not amused.
"From the political point of view, this action ... unnecessarily heats up political tensions, of which there are already too many in the European Union," Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski told state TV on Tuesday. He also called the 2015 plan “erroneous,” and argued that Warsaw contributes to solving the migrant crisis by “engaging in protection of EU’s external borders and systematically strengthening its humanitarian involvement in the region.”
"If necessary, Poland is ready to defend its legal arguments in court" he concluded.
"The Czech Republic does not agree with the system of relocation," Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said in response calling Brussels' plan to deal with migrants “dysfunctional.”
"With regard to the worsened security situation in Europe and dysfunctionality of the quota system, it will not participate in it. The European Commission blindly insists on pushing ahead with dysfunctional quotas which decreased citizens’ trust in EU abilities and pushed back working and conceptual solutions to the migration crisis."
In a separate legal battle on the matter, Hungary and Slovakia have challenged the relocation agreement in a top EU court, with an initial indication of the ruling due next month.
The former Soviet satellite nations rightfully justify their stance on asylum seekers by citing security concerns, noting a series of militant Islamist attacks in western Europe since late 2015. The bulk of refugees come from the mainly Muslim Middle East and North Africa. Their resistance to what they present as pressure from Brussels also earns them credit with eurosceptic voters at home.
Many other EU states have also dragged their feet over taking in refugees, with fewer than 21,000 people relocated from Italy and Greece so far under a plan that had been due to cover 160,000 people. As a reminder, the EU has been using the Greek bank insolvency as leverage, forcing Greece to house "temporarily" thousands of refugees until a permanent place is found for them somewhere else. Needless to say, the process has ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, wealthier EU states including Italy - which is now the main gateway to Europe for African migrants and refugees - have threatened to reduce generous development funds earmarked to help the easterners close the gap in living standards.
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The Commission is backed in the feud by Germany and Sweden, countries that took in most of the people who arrived in the EU; the two - together with France - have been hit by an unprecedented series of refugee terrorist attacks, usually by ISIS sympathizers. Not surprisingly, Brussels' confidence has been boosted by ardently pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron's victory over eurosceptics and nationalists, which gave the EU a renewed confidence a year after Brexit thrust it into an existential crisis.
But Avramopoulos said the timing of the decision came after the executive had been warning governments for months to change tack and had simply "exhausted all options" with the holdouts. An EU official said that despite its legal challenge, Slovakia had heeded the call to take in refugees and so escaped sanction.
After more than a million migrants and refugees reached the EU in 2015, mostly via Greece, Brussels sealed an accord with non EU-member Turkey that sharply cut the overall number of arrivals, though the deal was criticised by rights groups. Turkey has used the deal as a bargaining chip to obtain funding from Europe and allowed Erdogan to usurp effectively supreme power while arresting over 100,000 without as much as a peep from its "humanitarian" European neighbors.
Meanwhile, Italy remains under pressure, but the EU treats the vast majority of the 64,000 people who made it to Italian shores this year as migrants - rather than refugees requiring legal protection - and does not plan to let them stay, as Europe's "open doors" are now mostly shut.
The internal EU dispute over relocating asylum-seekers is a political one about values, as Avramopoulos stressed in his renewed appeal to the easterners. "Europe is not only about requesting funds or ensuring security. Europe is also about sharing difficult moments and challenges," he said.
For now, the "easterners" have told Brussels to shove it. It is unlikely this will change any time soon unless the EU imposes further pressure, which in turn threatens to tear apart the already fragile union.