Pragmatism or Sign of Weakness? Visegrad Countries React Cautiously to Refugee Pact

Francesco Hayez: The Refugees of Parga // Public domain

Refugee policy has gained momentum. In the run-up to the EU summit, the EU Commission wants to accommodate the representatives of the Central European countries of the Visegrad Group (V4): “Flexible solidarity” is the motto. A compulsory quota and distribution system of refugees among all EU countries will not be implemented. For too long has the V4 had opposed the proposal favored by Germany.

The opposition of the so-called V4 states blocked any European solution. The new approach goes: Whoever does not take in refugees should, where applicable, contribute financially to costs such as the repatriation of non-recognised asylum seekers. There are reasons to see this as a victory for pragmatism.

However, the compromise is still very vaguely formulated. This arouses suspicion. And the risk remains that the offer will be misunderstood as a free ticket by some countries that violate fundamental EU values.

Orbán Remains Firm on Refugee Policy

The Hungarian national conservative government interpreted the Commission’s focus on the protection of the EU’s external borders, cooperation on deportations and improved cooperation with third countries as confirmation of Hungary’s position on migration and refugee policy.

This position has remained unchanged since 2015. At the same time, the participation in repatriations of rejected asylum seekers was highlighted as the only possible contribution to the Migration Pact.

After the meeting of the V4 heads of government with Commission President von der Leyen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that although the “tone” had improved, the Commission proposal did not represent a breakthrough.

For him, a breakthrough would only come in the form of non-European hotspots, i.e. initial reception centres for the registration of refugees who would have to go through a legal procedure before they could enter the EU.

Orbán, who has been campaigning against Muslim immigrants in Hungary for years and is committed to transforming Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, stressed that Hungary still opposes a mandatory admission quota, even if the new migration and refugee pact presented by the European Commission on Wednesday uses a different term.

While media close to the government describe the proposal as a nicer packaging of the old package by former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, liberal media fear that Hungary could become a “deportation nation”.

Czech Republic Also Rejects Mandatory Quota System

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš welcomed the fact that the European Commission’s proposal did not contain any binding quotas for the admission of refugees. He said it was important that the new rules would allow EU countries to decide for themselves how to support countries under high migratory pressure.

The Czech government has long stressed that it does not support a mechanism based on a compulsory quota system. This was not changed by the ECJ judgement in April this year, according to which the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary violated their obligations under EU law by refusing refugee quotas.

The Czech Republic used to be considered an open country, receiving thousands of refugees, including Muslims, from war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

However, the proposed solution, which only provides for binding refugee quotas in the event of a crisis and aims at a more effective return of illegal migrants, seems to be a good basis for further talks in the Czech Republic. The government needs to consider how it will proceed in the negotiations. If it wants to maintain Western solidarity with the East within the EU, it must be prepared to compromise on migration policy.

Slovakian PM Matovič Missing at the Meeting With the President of the EU Commission

Slovakia has also been a long-standing opponent of the redistribution of refugees on the basis of binding quotas – the former social democratic government, together with Hungary, even filed a complaint against it. However, the ECJ dismissed the complaints in 2017.

The new Prime Minister Igor Matovič, whose anti-corruption movement “Ordinary People and Independent Personalities” won the parliamentary elections in February 2020, was the only one of the four Visegrad heads of government not to take part in the meeting with von der Leyen.

In a Facebook message, he clearly rejected the refugee quotas, but expressed himself more cautiously than his colleagues from the V4 group:

“We will tell our European partners sincerely and courageously that we do not agree in principle to the binding quotas, but at the same time we will offer a helping hand in solidarity to those countries that suffer greatly from illegal migration”.

He did not say what other forms of solidarity Slovakia was prepared to take.

Poland in Coalition Troubles

And then there is Poland, which is also among the hardliners in rejecting the previous quota proposals. The national-conservative government is at the centre of discussions on rule of law, for instance in view of the planned judicial reform, which, according to the European Court of Justice, restricts essential European values.

As far as the rule of law is concerned, the country is on a concerning path for observers. In this controversy, the proposed EU refugee compromise is seen by the government itself as a signal of relief, a victory for those who have always been against the immigration of refugees and quotas, but also a victory against the interference of third parties in internal affairs, which usually refers to the EU.

On the refugee question, it has the support of the population, almost three-quarters of whom are opposed to the admission of refugees according to opinion polls. This does not mean, however, that the government will simply pass the bill without any change requests.

In the current coalition negotiations, the national conservative PiS (Law and Justice) party is currently competing with the smaller but even more conservative Solidarna Polska party under Justice Minister Ziobro. There is sporadic criticism that the new refugee pact is a step backwards compared to the EU summit of June 2018, because the draft provides for a mechanism that would establish obligatory solidarity in case of a crisis.

For ideological reasons, the Polish government is likely to prefer a solution without quotas and compulsory admission. Therefore, the Polish side will most likely also want to “readjust” at the summit. The coalition poker makes this even more likely.

Is the EU Losing Its Power of Assertion?

On the EU side, one has to ask whether the new pragmatism might have undesirable side effects. The governments of Poland and Hungary in particular are taking a strict stance against any “interference” by the EU. That is why the debate on the Refugee Pact must be seen in a broader context – for example, with regard to rule of law.

At the EU summit in July 2020, the V4 governments had already succeeded in fending off an effective link between EU budget resources and respect for the rule of law – actually the EU’s strongest means of enforcing its own values. Reviving the Subsidiarity Principle, which is weakly developed in the EU, in the V4 position on the refugee issue is questionable at the very least in terms of values and burden sharing.

It is to be feared, however, that the EU will eventually give in and settle for the lowest common denominator, i.e. a “flexible solidarity” without obligation in the event of a crisis. However, the EU should not allow itself to be blackmailed.

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