Concluding a months-long saga in which central and eastern European nations revolted against Brussels' refugee policies, on Wednesday the European Union’s highest court ruled that EU states must take in a share of refugees who reach Europe, dismissing complaints by Slovakia and Hungary and reigniting an angry row between east and west. The Court upheld the EU’s right to order national governments to take in their "fair share" of asylum seekers, arguing that "the mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate."
The ECJ ruling is a victory for western European states like Germany, France and Italy, who have pushed for EU "solidarity" over the migration issue. Italy, now the main destination for migrants risking the Mediterranean crossing, is prominent among wealthier, Western states in threatening their eastern neighbors with cutting their EU subsidies if they do show solidarity by taking people in. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said he would still not take a quota but was ready to help in other ways.
The affirmative ruling means that Hungary and Slovakia will face fines if they refuse to abide by the quota system. Europe's mandatory refugee quota system was approved in September 2015 by a majority of EU member states, but was rejected by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary. Poland supported the plan, but later strongly opposed it when the right-wing PiS government came to power. As a result, the legal challenge was also backed by Poland, which alongside Hungary has not taken in any asylum seekers. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have only taken in a handful.
All four countries also say migrants will disrupt their societies and the EU's focus should be on protecting its external borders.
To enforce the decision, the EU executive also said on Wednesday it was ready to institute court proceedings within weeks that could lead to fines for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic if they refuse to take in refugees.
Speaking to reporters after the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), upheld the legality of quotas for states to take migrants relocated from the Mediterranean, Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “If the member states that have not relocated at all or not for a long time do not change their approach in the coming weeks, we should then consider to take the last step in the infringement procedure, taking Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the European Court of Justice.”
The ECJ has the power to levy financial penalties on governments which fail to comply with EU law. It is unclear how the eastern European nations will respond if directed by Brussels to pay billions if they maintain their refusal to accept migrants.
* * *
Previously, Slovakia and Hungary argued the EU broke its own rules and exceeded its powers when it approved the quota system with a "qualified majority," or about two-thirds vote. The ECJ countered by saying in its ruling that the EU "was not required to act unanimously when it adopted the contested decision."
According to Reuters, the government of Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Victor Orban was characteristically blunt about the European Court of Justice, calling its decision to uphold an EU policy drafted in the heat of the 2015 migrant crisis as “appalling” and denouncing a political “rape of European law and values”. However, Germany, which took in the bulk of over a million people who landed in Greece two years ago, said it expected the formerly communist states, including Poland, which supported the complaint, to now fall in line and accept the ruling that the Union is entitled to impose quotas of asylum-seekers on states.
Meanwhile, the European Commission predictably welcomed the ECJ ruling. "ECJ confirms relocation scheme valid. Time to work in unity and implement solidarity in full," said EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that the ruling means eastern European members must abide by the refugee sharing scheme. "I always said to our eastern European partners that it is right to clarify questions legally if there is doubt. But now we can expect all European partners to stick to the ruling and implement the agreements without delay," Gabriel said in a statement.
But in a demonstration of just how powerless Europe is to enforce judicial rulings across the union, Slovakia said that it accepted the top court decision but it was still against the refugee scheme.
"Our position on quotas does not change," Prime Minister Robert Fico said. "We will continue to work on having solidarity expressed in different ways other than forcing (on us) migrants from other countries that don't want to be here anyway."
In Budapest, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called the court's decision "outrageous and irresponsible."
"This decision jeopardises the security and future of all of Europe," he told a press conference, adding that the decion was political. "Politics has raped European law and values," he said.
Poland similarly warned it will continue to refuse to accept migrants Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said on Wednesday: “I was convinced that such a decision would be made (by the court), but this absolutely does not change the stance of the Polish government with respect to migration policy,” Szydlo told reporters on the sidelines of a business conference.
* * *
Only 24,000 of 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy have been transferred to other states under the EU's refugee burden sharing policy. Under the policy, Hungary is required to take in 1,294 refugees and Slovakia 902. The European Commission is also carrying out legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for refusing to implement the EU directive.
Nearly 1.7 million migrants have arrived in the EU from the Middle East and Africa since 2014. Migration flows have slowed since 2016, when the so-called Balkan route was largely closed and an EU migration deal with Turkey brought boat crossing to Greece down to a trickle. The EU has meanwhile sought to reduce migrant crossings from Libya.