Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic have yet to see eye to eye with the European Commission when it comes to handling the most serious European migration crisis since World War II. The three Eastern European countries are part of the Visegrad Group (along with Slovakia), a cultural and political alliance based on common interests, values and traditions. In recent years the group also shared a political trajectory leading to the election of populist government coalitions with political views that many see as imbued with nationalist and xenophobic sentiment. One of the strongest recent examples is the third consecutive election of anti-immigration protectionist Viktor Orban as Hungary’s prime minister in early April.
Background on The Visegrad Group Infringement Case
Facing an unprecedented influx of migrants in 2015, the EU established a relocation and resettlement plan to address disproportionate migrant flows on Southern EU borders. Aiming to relocate thousands, the plan was meant to alleviate pressure on frontline countries like Italy and Greece, spreading the burden equally across the bloc. Although no country has effectively relocated all the refugees it committed to (only 32,000 out of 160,000 have been relocated), the majority of member states participated to some extent, save Hungary and Poland, who outright refused to take any refugees at all. The Czech Republic, for its part, took 12 people before announcing it would take no more citing security concerns.
As a consequence, last June the European Commission opened an infringement procedure against Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic, later referring them to the Court of Justice of the EU for non-compliance with their legal obligations. The leaders of these countries have defended their stance against the EU, stating that their decision represented a safeguard against terrorism and the economic insecurity of their citizens, as well as protection and preservation of the religious aspects of their culture.
Brussels has set a June deadline for uncompliant countries to cooperate with the relocation program. Failure to do so would further the path towards the infringement procedure. But even if a full case were carried out against the offending countries, it would come far from realising a long-term solution to what could be an easily repeatable issue. German Chancellor Merkel has proposed making access to EU funding conditional to member states’ compliance with the relocation quotas. In Berlin’s view the funding should support governments who are offering international protection to refugees and taking concrete steps to integrate them. Currently, the Visegrad countries are among the biggest recipients of regional funding, and would be among the member states impacted most by this possible outcome.
Poland and the Use of Article 7
One of the Visegrad Group countries, Poland, is engaged in its own conflict with the European Commission. For over two years the EU has engaged with the right-wing Polish Government, led by the Law and Justice Party, for changes to the judicial system deemed a serious threat to the rule of law. Since 2017 the Polish Parliament has adopted more than 13 consecutive laws, granting the legislative power ability to interfere with the Supreme and ordinary courts.
The laws introduce some sweeping changes to the country’s judicial framework, to which Poland’s high court has voiced strong opposition. The laws also raise questions about the application of the EU Law and have triggered the infamous Article 7 procedure by the European Commission. Article 7 is the EU’s infringement procedure to be used against member states that have committed fundamental rights violations. On March 20th this year, just hours before the midnight deadline set by the European Commission, the Polish Government, lead by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, presented a series of amendments to its highly contested judiciary reform bills, addressing the concerns expressed by Brussels. The amendments are a welcome concession to the European Commission, signaling a will to compromise.
This is an important step forward for the EU, but it is unlikely to be an isolated incident. The bloc may face similar challenges following another “supermajority” win (two-thirds majority) by Hungary’s Fidesz party, which allows the right-wing populist group to make constitutional changes.
Hopeful Signs of Cooperation
While the recent acts of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic could be seen as challenging the rhetoric of the European Union as a symbol of stability and prosperity, they are also among the biggest beneficiaries of EU structural and investment aid – and more importantly – they show zero sign of wanting to exit the Union. This means that the best outcome for all actors is the implementation of a common solution that will stick.
The recent decline of migrant arrivals, coupled with the decrease in media attention on the migration issue are promising signs that a mutual agreement could be on the horizon. The drastic decrease in numbers (172,000 Mediterranean Sea arrivals in 2017 versus circa one million in 2015) since the peak of the migrant crisis three years ago, is a direct consequence of the deal signed between Italy and the Libyan Government just over one year ago. The deal has dramatically impacted the inflow of migrants from the Central Mediterranean route. Similarly, the deal between the EU and Turkey had a significant dampening effect on the Eastern Mediterranean route (a 92% decrease). The combined effect of these agreements indicates a model that effectively reduced the migrant arrivals for the southernmost EU states, especially Italy and Greece.
Long-Term Solutions to a Complex Problem
The Commission is already working on a much-needed reform of the Dublin Regulation, which regulates asylum application requests within the EU. The current Dublin regime is based on the principle that the member state of first entry is responsible for processing an asylum-seeker’s application. This leads to an unequal distribution of the refugee applicants across the continent. Reforming this now obsolete system would ease some of the pressure felt on frontline countries in Southern Europe, by establishing a proportionate reallocation system among member states (the so called fairness mechanism).
The migrant relocation scheme and a reform of the Dublin Regulation are indispensable tools needed to tackle the migrant crisis collectively, with all European member states sharing a cohesive policy. However, while they may be sufficient to curtail the problem, neither will solve it entirely. As the Union shares a common external border, it must find a way to share a common European migration policy that can be implemented writ large. For this reason, the June meeting of the European Council will be a crucial moment, where the heads of state of all 28 EU member states will congregate to set some key aspects of Europe’s migration policy going forward.
In addition to reforming the current asylum system, European leaders will revisit the so-called Blue card initiative, which regulates the entry of high skilled migrant workers. The program, which should have been Europe’s version of the American Green Card, has been heavily underused due to its stringent requirements. Severely high minimum salary requirements, excessive length requirements for work contracts, and lack of mobility within the EU for its beneficiaries, have turned the Blue Card Permit – as of now – into a missed opportunity. The initiative has the opportunity to become the EU’s collective high skilled visa program. But in order to achieve this, member states will have to cede part of their visa policy and border control to Brussels, a prospect that has been met with mixed responses.
Migrant pressures are far from over, with forecasts predicting at least a doubling of migratory flows in the next 35 years. A farsighted policy should gradually move away from the current patchwork of immigration and asylum laws of each single member state, and collectively address the larger issue of legal migration for the decades to come. Learning from the advanced economies that have built their prosperity on a robust legal migration, the EU should invest in a comprehensive program to manage legal migrants’ inflows, thus driving its own economic growth for generations.
As for the Visegrad Group in particular, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will need to find a way to further align their national ambitions with the collective aspirations of the bloc, in order to continue benefiting from the membership they clearly hold dear. Leaders of these countries would do well to remember that from the end of the 18th century to the mid-20th century, Europeans constituted some of the largest migrant waves in history as they made their way to different parts of the world. In fact, many Visegrad citizens themselves have contributed to migration influxes into other EU countries since their accession into the bloc.
Thus, in order to continue benefitting from the collective group, member states should keep their doors open to embrace the people and the policies of modern Europe.