Visegrad Four continues to battle Europe

  • Petr Boháček
  • 18.12.2017 16:26

The gridlock over migration policy continues to revolve around the same issue – mandatory quotas for refugee relocation. Despite a significant rise of power by the Visegrad Four countries, the group continues to reject any similar mechanisms for political reasons. It is time for the V4 gets serious about Europe.

The discussion about migration and the so-called Dublin IV reform of the EU's Common European Asylum System has changed substantially. The Visegrad Four countries had played an important role in this. The focus is now mainly on protecting the external borders of the EU and improving the screening and processing systems of asylum-seekers – the first two main packaged of the proposed Dublin reform. The Western countries, calling for a more humane approach and solidarity in their critique of V4 in the past, have thus agreed to delegated responsibility for dealing with migrants to countries with a dubious human rights record, armed militias and organised crime groups in war-torn Libya.

The agreement on the reform was reached on setting up hotspots, supporting development in African countries like Libya, Chad or Niger, or fighting human smuggling. A disagreement persists over the third package that deals with emergency situations, in which – for a wide-spectrum of foreseeable and unforeseeable reasons – high numbers of migrants could reach southern countries again. According to the proposal, should migration become uncontrollable and pass a certain limit, then all EU countries would pitch in to relieve the most stressed countries by hosting a proportionate number of migrants. The Visegrad rejects this.

 

The substance of the dispute is not migration but politics

 

The substance of the dispute is not migration but politics. By the Lisbon Treaty, EU asylum policy is decided at the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) of Interior Ministers by qualified majority. Yet, under V4’s pressure, the EU has agreed to seek a consensus on the topic at the Council level. More, Donald Tusk, the Council’s president even criticised the quotas as divisive – calling for a unanimity. Schemes based on payments for each accepted refugee with amounts from €6,000 to €200,000 per person, with options to substitute some number of relocated migrants with sending border guards to Italy or Greece, have been repeatedly turned down. The Czech Republic, which accepted 12 migrants, could have easily dodged the recently launched infringement procedure for rejecting the previous quotas mechanism by offering free spots similarly to Slovakia, which accepted 16 and avoided the lawsuit. It didn’t. According to Frontex, migrant numbers dropped significantly from 1,822,177 in 2015, to 511,371 in 2016 and to 186,500 in January-November 2017, a 62% decrease compared to the year before. Migration really seems not to be the main problem.

The dispute lays at the core of the Eastern Europe’s fight for more power and voice in Brussels. Considering the number of concessions and the shift in the migration debate, they have been very successful. But if they abandoned the current confrontational policy, they could immediately lose their newly acquired lever that brought political capital.

However, this power came in uncanny forms. It came through a deadlock that sees no solution. It came at the expense of fuelling Euroscepticism in the respective countries. It is also built on fear-mongering and populism. The inability of the populist politicians to articulate and explain unpopular policies with a sense of responsibility leaves them with limited options. Contemporary politicians very well remember the power of fear during the times of Communism. Inciting fear of migrants serves them well and is a much an easier policy option. The question remains if they are fuelling Euroscepticism and extremism or preventing the rise of radical right-wing parties? The rise of Czech far-right SPD or Fidesz would argue it does not. Why go for a watered-down copy when you can have the original?

 

Fighting the EU is a good domestic tactic, but not a strategy

 

The timing is not right either. Elections in Hungary in 2018, the lurking possibility of another election in the Czech Republic, the losing power of the ruling Social Democrats in Slovakia and the multilevel dispute between Poland and the EU make an expected agreement before the next June 2018 Council summit difficult.

Fighting the EU is a good domestic tactic, but not a strategy. Poland is preparing for the launch of the Article 7 by the European Commission over its highly criticised and controversial judicial reform. The country does not fear the suspension of its voting rights under the article, rather the ruling Law and Justice party is looking to exploit it through the party’s EU-critical stance. While the Czechs would reportedly support the launch of the Article 7, the Hungarians would certainly back their key ally, effectively blocking the measure that requires unanimity.

The May 2019 European Parliament elections serve as a potential deadline for solving the issue. The European Council presidency decides on the procedure of the vote on asylum reform. Should the topic fail to reach a consensus under the six-month 2018 presidency by Bulgaria, a country that accepted the relocation scheme, it will fall onto Austria. New Chancellor Sebastian Kurz would make migration a priority. He rejected mandatory quotas but only to argue the main focus needs to be on external border protection. No one doubts this position at this point. In the past, Kurz has also complained in the past that the migration burden had been distributed unevenly among member states. Austria’s presidency could make a difference and gather the much-repeated support of more pro-European governments in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at the expense of Hungary and Poland.

 

It is up to the four post-Communist countries to make the move if they are serious about Europe

 

The EU opened many fronts for finding a consensus. We can consider the open critique by Council President Donald Tusk as one of its biggest signs. But Europe is still waiting for the V4 to offer an effective alternative or solidarity. V4’s pledge to provide €35 million to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to address migration at EU’s borders is not a symbol of solidarity, it purely supports the second package of the proposed Dublin IV reform. Many countries signalled that if no consensus is reached, the asylum reform will be decided by the qualified majority at the Interior Ministers council – leaving the V4 outvoted again. That would be extremely harmful to the support of the EU. The governments can only ride the wave of Euroscepticism for so long before it has direct consequences – maybe in a form of an exit referendum. The stakes are high, and it is up to the four post-Communist countries to make the move if they are serious about Europe.

About author: Petr Boháček

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