After the EU Summit: Between Appeasement and Campaign Rhetoric

It remains to be seen whether the majority decision on the redistribution of 120,000 refugees was a clever move. In Central Eastern Europe, the voices against the “dictate of the majority” cannot be ignored.

The headlines could hardly be more disparate. After last week’s meeting of EU interior ministers and extraordinary summit, one could read in the German media that the EU would in future redistribute refugees without consensus, that EU leaders had come together, that the EU had been detoxified and that Europeans were showing unity. In the Czech Republic, however, the headlines were very different: “Czech Republic outvoted”, “A Czech defeat in Brussels”, “Agitated Europe solves migration crisis”, “European Union dictates quotas”, “Poland betrays Visegrád countries”.

The Czech Republic’s Social Democratic prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, has said that he is preparing for further “battles”, pushing at the EU level for a “realistic approach to the migration crisis”, and that he will not capitulate. He stated in an interview that the Czech Republic had “survived this battle” and that forces would have to be brought to bear for future battles. He accused countries with a large number of refugees of having created “irrational pressure”, to which he would not “succumb”, and indicated that the Czech Republic would have to find new allies In the “battle against a permanent redistribution mechanism”.

Anti-integration voices strengthened

This campaign rhetoric shows that there can be no talk of a “detoxification of the EU”. To the contrary, anti-integration voices have been strengthened in Central Eastern Europe, and warnings of a “dictate” from Brussels or Berlin will not subside after last week. Tensions are palpable and have become further exacerbated.

Harsh criticism came from the ranks of the Czech opposition: ODS MEP Jan Zahradil said Sobotka had “bravely snapped his heels together and kept his mouth shut”, while Communist Party Chairman and MP Vojtěch Filip characterised Sobotka’s approach as a “programmatic betrayal”. Even former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP09) stressed that the decision on quotas had been a mistake and that he would have preferred a voluntary solution – something that Sobotka too had advocated at the EU level.

“Dictate of the majority”

In recent days, however, substantial differences have also emerged in the approaches taken by the governments of the Visegrád countries (V4) which suggest that we are not dealing with a reluctant “Eastern bloc”, but rather with very disparate governments and political motives. At the EU level, distinct strategies will be needed in order to involve these countries in a process that aims to develop a common EU refugee policy.

The reactions by individual governments to the EU interior ministers’ decision can be described as follows: indifferent and aggressive (Hungary), angry and uncompromising (Slovakia), surprised and sobered (Czech Republic), calm and ultimately cooperative (Poland).

As the largest and most important country in the V4, Poland embarked upon a course divergent from the rest by voting in favour of the proposal, while at the same time signalling that Poland would not agree to a permanent redistribution mechanism. Ahead of the elections in October 2015 and in view of current polls that all show the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) of former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński in the lead, this was a courageous move on the part of Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.

Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, who had travelled to Brussels without an alternative proposal, had obviously not expected EU interior ministers to decide by a qualified majority on redistributing 120,000 refugees under a quota system. He announced after the 23:4 defeat (Finland abstained) that common sense had lost. The fact that it was not the heads of state and government but the interior ministers who reached the majority decision on redistribution already on the eve of the extraordinary summit was a strategically clever move, as this avoided casting the shadow of confrontation on the summit itself and thus made it possible for other issues and measures to be discussed and adopted, and created space for damage control at the EU level. Ahead of the summit, Bohuslav Sobotka had tried to save face with his European partners by explaining that he wanted to contribute to focusing the debate on substantive issues, and that he would not block further EU steps to resolve the “migration crisis” over the quota decision.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was not ready to take such a position, however, and loudly criticised the “dictate of the majority”. He fulminated that he would not comply with the decision, and would rather risk an infringement procedure. He also announced that he would take legal action against the quotas at the European Court of Justice. Bohuslav Sobotka distanced himself from this plan immediately, for which he was criticised by Czech President Miloš Zeman.

CSU receives Orbán at Banz Abbey

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated quite clearly that he was not interested in the interior ministers’ decision, nor would it dissuade him from pursuing his hard line. At the invitation of and before the entire CSU group in Bavaria’s state parliament, the Hungarian prime minister addressed the topic of “Responsibility in Europe – Overcoming the Flow of Refugees Together” on 23 September at Banz Abbey in Upper Franconia. He announced that he had assumed the role of “Bavaria’s Border Guard Captain”, for which he was rewarded by Horst Seehofer with friendly glances. In contrast, Chancellor Merkel accused Orbán of “moral imperialism”. This raises the question of how a quite controversial majority decision supported by Germany can be legitimated and taken seriously at the EU level when the CSU sideswipes its own government with uncritical admiration for Orbán on the very day of the extraordinary summit. The inconsistent, increasingly contradictory signals sent out by the CDU/CSU are not helpful for a credible European dialogue. By courting Orbán and flirting with his policy of escalation and partition, Seehofer has rebuffed the voices in Hungary and other V4 countries who want their governments to make a constructive contribution to the development of a solidary EU refugee policy.

Whether the majority decision on the quota system was indeed a clever move or merely a strategic manoeuvre by national leaders in response to domestic political pressure from right-wing populist parties or members of their own parties remains to be seen. One thing is clear, however: this extraordinary summit did not make much progress in smoothing over ruffled feathers.

English translation: Evan Mellander