One month after the EU's executive Commission launched legal cases against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for "defaulting on their legal obligations" by refusing to comply with the EU's refugee quotas (i.e., accept migrants), on Wednesday the three Central European nations suffered another blow after Brussels mounted a legal fightback to force them to comply with EU refugee quotas. The top European Union court's adviser dismissed a challenge brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the obligatory relocation of refugees across the bloc, as it prepared to sign-off legal suits against the holdout countries.
The two states, backed by Poland, wanted the court to annul a 2015 EU scheme to have each member state host a number of refugees to help ease pressure on Greece and Italy, struggling with mass arrivals across the Mediterranean. Supported by Germany, Italy and Brussels, the EU’s “relocation” law has become one of the bloc’s most divisive recent policy initiatives, forced through over the objections of states from eastern and central Europe.
The euroskeptic governments in Warsaw and Budapest have refused to take in a single asylum-seeker under the plan (which may explain the lack of terrorist events on their home soil). Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also stalled, citing security concerns after a raft of Islamist attacks in the EU in recent years. Quoted by the FT, the EU’s migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said he regretted the decision of the three member states “not to show solidarity and to ignore our repeated calls to participate in this common effort” adding that none of the responses from Budapest, Warsaw or Prague to the commission “justified that they do not implement the relocation decision”.
Avramopoulos welcomed the advocate general’s opinion but added the “door was still open” for the central-eastern countries to change their stance on the refugee quotas. “If these member states decide to change position we are ready to work with them to address their concerns”, he said. “We are at the last stage but there is still time. Let’s hope reason will prevail.”
The decision to move forward with “infringement proceedings” against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic is a highly charged political step that will test whether the EU member states ultimately comply with rules they have called illegal and unjust. The commission’s stance on refugees was bolstered on Wednesday by the European Court of Justice.
Hungary and Slovakia had mounted a legal challenge against the relocation decision, claiming it violated procedure, was improperly drafted in law and was neither a suitable or necessary policy response.
But in an opinion released on Wednesday an advocate general to the court rejected the claims as unfounded and recommended that judges dismiss the case. While the opinion is not binding, the views of the advocate general are followed in a majority of final rulings.
A final ECJ ruling is expected after the summer break. The court does not have to but generally does follow the advisory opinion of the Advocate General Yves Bot, whoe rejected the procedural arguments presented by Bratislava and Budapest that obligatory quotas were unlawful.
"The contested decision automatically helps to relieve the considerable pressure on the asylum systems of Italy and Greece following the migration crisis in the summer of 2015 and ... is thus appropriate for attaining the objective which it pursues," he said. The reluctance of Poland and Hungary to help the two southern frontline states, as well as wealthier EU countries such as Germany, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of migrants, have precipitated bitter disputes in the bloc and weakened its unity.
According to Reuters, the European Commission said on Wednesday that some 24,700 people had been moved from Greece and Italy under the plan that had been due to cover 160,000. The EU had earmarked €377.5 million - some €10,000 per person - for 2018 for a twin scheme to legally bring to Europe asylum seekers from places such as Turkey, Libya or Niger, rather than have people risk their lives in perilous Mediterranean crossings operated by smugglers.
The inflow of refugees was drastically cut after a 2016 deal with Ankara, making Italy the main gateway to Europe now, with some 94,400 arrivals so far this year across the sea. Brussels offered Italy extra money and help, and urged EU states to step up relocations from that country. It also said Rome had to improve registration of those arriving, especially some 25,000 Eritreans, to qualify them for the move.
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With tensions running high over Europe's controversial refugee-acceptance policy, mostly among central European nations, the resulting split has shaped domestic politics in recent years.
Wednesday’s decisions marked a rebuff to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has made the rejection of EU refugee policies his central political message for more than two years. In a referendum in October last year 98.2 per cent of voters backed the government’s opposition to the EU’s refugee sharing programme, although the result was deemed invalid because of low turnout. Orban has since spent tens of millions of public funds on advertising campaigns, accusing the EU of endangering Hungarian security through its asylum policies.
And yet, despite the ruling, none of the affected nations were eager to change their mind: Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico said in a statement his government was sticking to its decision to refuse mandatory quotas and called the Advocate General's opinion "non binding". Hungary similarly dismissed the ruling as politically motivated.
"The main elements of the statement are political, which are practically used to disguise the fact that there are no legal arguments in it," Pal Volner, state secretary of the Justice Ministry, was cited as saying by the state news agency MTI.
Should the ECJ eventually rule with the commission and uphold the law, it will confront Budapest and Warsaw with a political decision that could have far-reaching ramifications for the EU, according to the FT.
Outright refusal to comply once the legal challenges have run their course will have consequences in other areas, including Germany’s approach to the EU long-term budget, which must be negotiated by 2020. Some have speculated that it could result in the breakup of the Shengen customs zone which forms the backbone of the European Union.