In Favour of a Solidary EU Refugee Policy

A special EU summit of heads of state and government will take place on 23 September. After years of neglect, however, a solidary EU refugee policy cannot be elaborated in summary proceedings and under pressure. A commentary by Eva van de Rakt

Ahead of the special EU summit of heads of state and government on 23 September, the headline “German Roulette with Refugees” has been run in a Czech weekly. This headline reveals a great deal about how the German government’s policy is currently being perceived and presented in Prague – as risky, imprudent and unreliable.

Everyone knows that the binding quota system proposed by the European Commission on distributing refugees among EU member states has failed thus far due to opposition by the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). The reasons for the four governments’ rejection of the quota system and their conspicuous display of consensus on this issue are deserving of criticism. These countries stand in the way of a solidary EU refugee policy, and so far there is no sign that they will offer alternative proposals.

The Czech prime minister’s lack of courage

It is difficult to understand why Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka does not distinguish himself from his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán. Indeed, as a social democrat, this should actually be his duty. In recent weeks, I have been asking myself why Sobotka cannot appeal to the Czech people directly and approach the refugee issue differently. Admittedly, this is not easy for him: Czech President Miloš Zeman’s influence within the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) cannot be underestimated, even though he has not been a party member for many years. And it was President Zeman who in August communicated the following three sentences to refugees through the media:

“No one invited you here. If you’re already here, you must respect our rules, just as we respect your rules when we come to your country. And if you don’t like it then go away.”

In addition, Sobotka heads a coalition government in which he has to keep an unpredictable coalition partner, namely Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s party ANO, in line. Babiš suggested in August that NATO should assist in protecting the Schengen countries’ external borders from the infiltration by refugees.

Moreover, a majority of the Czech population is opposed to admitting refugees. It is fair here to pose the question of how Angela Merkel would have proceeded in recent days in the context of such a majority viewpoint. While she could not garner unanimous support within her own party for her decision to grant to refugees who had been held in Hungary for days in inhumane conditions permission to travel to Germany, she could count on widespread popular support.

Nevertheless, Bohuslav Sobotka is taking the easy road by opting for a political strategy on the basis of current opinion polls that does not really distinguish and clearly distance itself from Viktor Orbán’s policy of closed borders and the rhetoric of a threat posed by “other cultures” to “Christian Europe”. Sobotka could position himself differently in the media, but this would require courage. He would have to try to address the public’s diffuse fears of foreigners without indirectly confirming them. He would have to trust Czech society to be able to overcome these fears. Regrettably, the Czech prime minister lacks precisely this courage and trust – even though in this endeavour he could count on support from prominent personalities, intellectuals and an increasing number of engaged citizens. Slovak President Andrej Kiska has demonstrated in recent weeks that the present situation can and should be handled differently – even when a majority of the Slovak population opposes admitting refugees as well. In an impressive speech at the beginning of September, Kiska formulated his hope and faith that Slovakia would save face – the face of a “confident country with people who have an open heart”, a country that “can not only take, but also give”. Bohuslav Sobotka should draw courage and inspiration from this. Instead, he speaks almost exclusively about the need to protect the EU’s external borders and appeals again and again to the argument that the refugees actually do not wish to stay in the Czech Republic anyway, but would prefer to continue on to Germany.

A binding quota system by majority vote?

It has been reported in the media in recent days that the German government can envisage pushing the quota system through by a majority vote against the will of the Central European governments, but solidarity can neither be bought nor exacted, even when the issues are so urgent. A majority decision against a “reluctant East European bloc” would not send a good signal and would sketch a picture of a “bright” Western Europe and a “dark” Eastern Europe that does not reflect the reality and would be extremely tricky for the future of the EU. Moreover, such a decision would absolve the political elites in these countries of their responsibility to contribute actively and constructively to developing a solidary EU refugee policy, and to explain to their citizens that the EU is a community of values and not a self-service store. It is clear that no constructive proposal will be forthcoming from Viktor Orbán; he will further escalate the situation and continue his smear campaign against refugees and everything foreign as a threat to the “Hungarian nation” – no majority decision will change this. Orbán’s methods should surprise no one given the confrontational policy he has pursued since 2010, which is part of his vision of “national unity” – i.e. part of a more deeply rooted problem that follows from the Hungarian prime minister’s questionable understanding of democracy. But Bohuslav Sobotka is not Viktor Orbán.

Solidarity needs more

The German government should not toil over the Visegrád countries’ ostentatious display of unity, but rather should try to involve as many governments as possible in developing a workable solution. If this is currently unthinkable in the form of a binding quota system, then other approaches must be elaborated at the EU level, because one thing is clear: not only the countries of Central Eastern Europe are to blame for the drama that is currently playing out on the EU’s external borders and now also inside the Schengen countries. Nor do these countries bear sole responsibility for the fact that member states have been unable to agree on a compromise. The current crisis rests on the inability of all EU member states to develop a forward-looking and solidary refugee policy. In this respect, even the German government turned a blind eye to the issue knowingly and for far too long. This fact could well be overlooked amid the exhilarating images of German Willkommenskultur. After years of neglect, however, a solidary EU refugee policy cannot be elaborated in summary proceedings and under pressure, for solidarity is known to require continuity, trust and mutual respect.


English translation: Evan Mellander