Eastern Europe: United in opposition to refugee quotas After three weeks of heated negotiations, on 22 September European Home Affairs Ministers finally approved the proposal of the European Commission concerning the relocation of 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece within two years. Although described as ‘a historic moment’1 by Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, not all parties concerned see the decision as an unequivocal success. While the majority of countries voted in favour of the plan, Finland chose to abstain and Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary voted against it, with their governments angrily voicing their discontent. The objections of Central and Eastern European countries enforce the image of a Europe unable to find a consensus on the migration crisis. However, despite the dramatic reactions of certain member states, experts criticise the plan for not doing enough to tackle the issue of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived this year.
The idea of a common, European response to the refugee crisis had been introduced by Jean-Claude Juncker in his European Parliament speech on the 9th of September. He requested that the member states relocate 120,000 refugees, building upon the previously existing quota of 40,000 which had been proposed in May. Juncker expressed his hope that ‘everyone will be on board’, but the first round of negotiations on the 14th of September immediately highlighted the controversial nature of the plan. Although the ministers agreed on the relocation of 40,000 persons from Italy and Greece, no consensus could be reached regarding the other 120,000 migrants, which includes refugees living in Hungary as well as those in Greece and Italy. However, the former agreement was not without objections. Despite the fact that refugees would have been relocated from Hungary as part of the larger plan, it still chose not to participate in it at all, and a clash between France’s Bernard Cazeneuve and Slovak interior minister Robert Kalinak (who claimed early on that ‘the quota system isn’t the solution’)2 resulted in further tensions. ‘We did not find the agreement we wanted’, commented Mr Avramopoulos after the talk, and due to the unsatisfying results, Donald Tusk called an emergency meeting for the following week. Progress was finally made at this summit on the 22nd of September; the scheme will now relocate 66,000 of the most needy refugees from Greece and Italy, while Hungary’s 54,000 will be redistributed between these two countries and others who will deal with a large number of refugees in the next two years. However, the fact that the vote occurred only a few hours after the start of the meeting signals that there was no real chance to reach a voluntary agreement.
The fierce opposition of Eastern and Central European countries provided the largest roadblock towards an agreement. The government of Slovakia, the scheme’s loudest opponent, has already filed a legal challenge at the European Court of Justice against the decision, described as a ‘diktat’ by prime minister Robert Fico.4 Based on the formula used to assign refugees to member states, which considers national income, population size and unemployment rate among other factors, Slovakia is required to host 802 people from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, which amounts to only 0.014% of its population. Hungary, which was not considered as a host country in the original proposal, will now have to take its share and accept 1294 refugees (0.013% of the population). This share is in addition to those already in the country who would have been redistributed under the original relocation scheme, in which Hungary refused to participate. While the Hungarian government’s decision to not benefit from the planned scheme seems to go against prime minister Viktor Orbán’s politics about migration (building a fence on the Serbian border to prevent more migrants from entering, for example), there are two possible explanations for it. The formal reason is that Hungary would have been classed as a frontline state, and according to the government’s official communication this is objectionable, since those who arrive in the country have to cross a southern state (most frequently Greece), whose failure to register these incoming migrants should not affect Hungary in any way.5 The more pragmatic argument concerns the establishment of so-called hotspots for registering and distributing refugees; Mr Orbán claimed that they would only be effective if the borders were closed, otherwise it would be impossible to measure how many migrants are still to be redistributed.
It should be highlighted, however, that Hungary voted against the plan in its current form and will accept more migrants only because of the results of the vote. Furthermore, the number of people to be taken in remains marginal, especially compared to the masses that Western European countries have agreed to take in (30,000 refugees are to be shared between Germany and France, while the nine Eastern European countries will only take half that number between them).6 Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, explained the hostile attitude of Eastern countries by their rejection and fear of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. When Mr Orbán talked about the lack of ‘German history’ and ‘German way of thinking’ in his country, he was trying to justify this attitude by claiming that Hungary does not have the necessary experience to deal with migration. It is true that apart from the Roma minority, Hungary is an ethnically homogenous country, but examples from history could also be used to point out why the government could be expected to show more solidarity. When biggest wave of refugees in the post-WWII era came from Hungary after the 1956 revolution, they were greeted warmly by people on the other side of the border.7 Recent examples of voluntary refugee support groups also show that civilians consider it to be their responsibility to help. The thousands of volunteers in the train stations in Budapest and near the borders in Slovakia prove that the population’s approach to migration is far from hostile.
This attitude is also not a characteristic of all former communist states; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania voted in favour of the plan and so did Poland, whose decision surprised other countries in the Visegrád group. While these governments do not believe the plan will in itself solve the crisis, they see it as a first step and prioritise EU consensus in order to reach further results. Indeed, while the current divisions between Eastern and Western Europe were accentuated by the vote, it would be overly simplistic to state that Eastern Europe is not ready to welcome refugees. The governments of the opposing countries, who rely on historic examples and fear the effects of different cultural influences on their societies ignore Baltic countries with similar backgrounds chose to voluntarily accept refugees and that their own citizens are already showing solidarity with and helping the integration of migrants.