Eastern European leaders defy EU effort to set refugee quotas

Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia reject efforts by Brussels to form common policy on just 66,000 migrants, calling it illegal

Central and eastern European leaders have defied attempts by Brussels and Berlin to impose refugee quotas ahead of two days of high-stakes summits in Brussels to try to decide on what already looks like a vain attempt to limit the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe.

After months of being consistently behind the curve in grappling with the EU’s huge migration crisis, interior ministers will meet on Tuesday to focus on the highly divisive issue of mandatory quotas to share refugees across the union. There will then be an emergency summit of leaders on Wednesday.

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, who is chairing Tuesday’s meeting, failed to reach a breakthrough in Prague on Monday with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia.

The Czech government wrote to Brussels arguing that compulsory quotas were illegal and that it could take the issue to the European court of justice in Luxembourg, while the anti-immigration Hungarian government brought in new laws authorising the army to use non-lethal force against refugees massing on its borders.

“There are still a few problems to solve,” said Asselborn. “We still have 20 hours.”

“The terrain is still very uncertain,” said a senior source from Luxembourg. “We don’t yet have agreement. It’s going to be very, very difficult.”

This week’s fresh attempt to agree on a quota system comes amid the deepest divisions between western and eastern Europe since the former Soviet-bloc countries joined the EU a decade ago.

At issue is the paltry figure of 66,000 refugees being shared across the EU after being moved from Italy and Greece. They have already agreed to share 40,000 and were to redistribute a further 120,000. But 54,000 of those were from Hungary, which passed a law on Monday allowing the army to use non-lethal force on migrants and whose hardline government wants no part of the scheme.

Given that up to a million people are expected to enter Germany alone this year and that Frontex, the EU’s border agency, says 500,000 are currently preparing to leave Turkey for the EU, the figures being fought over in Brussels are risible.

But the numbers are not the real issue. The row is about power and sovereignty. In the end it seems that all countries will join in sharing refugees, with the exception of Britain, which has opted out of the scheme. The other two countries with opt-outs – Ireland and Denmark – have agreed to take part, leaving the UK isolated.

For the east Europeans, the vexed question is one of who takes the decisions: whether Brussels and Berlin set their quota or whether they decide themselves to take in refugees. They feel they are being bullied and blackmailed by the Germans, who have threatened to withhold EU funding for the recalcitrants.

For the supporters of quotas, especially in the European commission, the numbers are also less important. For Brussels, the key factor is that the start of mandatory sharing would mark the first tentative steps towards common EU policies on refugees and set a precedent to be built on.

Germany is the biggest and strongest backer of the proposed new regime, not least since it is a replica of the system practised in Germany. It has a well-functioning federalised scheme that spreads and funds the burden across the 16 German länder (or states), based on a formula that takes account of local wealth, unemployment rates and the population density of immigrants.

In effect, the European commission is proposing to extend the German model to the EU. If there is no consensus on Tuesday, the pro-quotas camp could push the issue to a qualified majority vote, which they would comfortably win. But that could open up deep divisions and cause major political damage.

A woman in Berlin holds a sign welcoming refugees.
A woman in Berlin holds a sign welcoming refugees. Photograph: Thorsten Strasas/Demotix/Corbis

It would mean forcing countries to take in people they don’t want and send people to countries where they do not want to go, said an EU official, who believed a vote on such an incendiary issue would be counter-productive.

The summit on Wednesday is to focus on how to keep people out rather than how to bring them in, while avoiding the mayhem of recent weeks in the Balkans and central Europe, where borders have been opening and closing on a daily basis in an atmosphere of panic and chaos.

The summit will concentrate on ways of stemming the flow from Turkey and Libya and helping the transit countries of the Balkans – in effect, proposing to bribe neighbouring countries to keep the migrants from reaching the EU.

Germany has been admired for its open-door policy on Syrian refugees. It is also being blamed for the mess because of unilateral decision-taking that has sown confusion and led to kneejerk reactions in the countries en route to Germany from the Balkans – Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. There is also bewilderment about what Germany’s policy is.

Since April, when the drowning of 400 migrants in the Mediterranean raised the alarm, EU governments have staged several emergency meetings in response to horrible events – such as the death of a toddler on a Turkish beach and the asphyxiation of 70 migrants in a sealed lorry in Austria.

The governments have bickered and quarrelled, failing to agree on coherent policies. Only the European commission has delivered a semblance of a joined-up strategy, including the plan for mandatory refugee quotas.

There is talk of beefing up Frontex. But so far, the 26 countries of the Schengen free-travel area have supplied only 64 extra personnel to the borders agency, seconded for six months. And, while reinforcing life-saving naval operations in the Mediterranean, the countries have also failed to redeem all their pledges of logistical support for the mission.

There is lots of talk of funding capacities in Turkey and building “reception centres” or refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. But senior diplomats say these discussions are sketchy and vague. The commissioner in charge, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has admitted that the target countries are reluctant to host the EU-proposed camps.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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