This time last year, over 98 per cent of Hungarians voted to reject EU migrant quotas. Though the turnout was not high enough to validate the vote – twelve months on, the wave of anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment in Eastern Europe continues.
Alongside Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are battling with the EU over migrant quotas. The European Commission is attempting to force states to accept a share of around 160,000 migrants as part of Europe-wide ‘relocation and resettlement program’. The move is designed to distribute migrants more evenly across Europe, easing the burden on larger states, such as France, Germany and Italy.
The Eastern European nations lost their case at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on September 6, with the court ruling that they must take the set quota of migrants. Their response has been fiery. The Hungarian Government, led by Victor Orban, decried the decision using typically strident language, with Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó calling the decision “outrageous and irresponsible”, before adding that “politics has raped European law.” The Polish Prime Minister has openly attacked the European Commission, calling the potential EU fines and possible legal penalties “blackmail”. Hungary has closed its borders, stating it will not be allowing any migrants to pass through or let alone accepting a quota of migrants. The Czech Interior Minister accused the EU of “putting its head in the sand”.
The perception of these countries is that Merkel’s Germany committed a supranational act by proclaiming that Syrian refugees could come and reside in her country – an act which, as Germany is the union’s leading light, the EU was bound to follow. This was not well received to the east of Berlin. The protesting nations perceive the migrant flow (often penetrating up to six borders of other EU states in order to get to the safe haven of Germany) to include a large number of opportunistic people, unconnected to the Syrian Civil War or other conflicts.
The encouragement of this migration flow, many Eurosceptics argue, has affected the sovereignty of national borders. “The whole issue raises a very serious question of principles: whether we are an alliance of European free nations with the Commission representing our joint interests, or a European empire which has its centre in Brussels and which can issue orders” said Hungarian leader Victor Orban following the ECJ ruling.
Yet again the issue of immigration – which characterised much of the Brexit debate – is bringing the EU to a crossroads. From the Commission’s point of view, member states must do their fair share: being part of the club obligates them to take part in blanket policies. Yet the parliaments of the Eastern European countries have to answer to their electorates, with each of the country’s populace seemingly united behind opposing the program.
But the objecting states also seem to be suffering from a bout of cognitive dissonance. All four have populations which by and large want to stay in the EU. One of the most vehemently opposed to this migrant quota debacle is Poland, whose people – by the overwhelming majority of 72% – wish to remain a member.
The Eastern European critics of the programme are concerned about the potential for failure. In Germany, some statistics suggest that of the one million migrants that arrived last year, less than 1% have skilled jobs. Of migrants classed as unskilled labourers, 13% have found jobs since arriving. But the situation is not black and white. Last year analysis by HSBC economists suggested that refugees and migrants are not necessarily bad news for the German economy: although the European refugee crisis costs the government an estimated 0.7% of GDP, it also generates an additional 0.4%.
Vigorous opposition to the quotas from the East stems from a combination of economic fears, a perception of Muslim migrants and refugees as a security threat, fear of identity loss, a fierce patriotic nationalism and inexperience. But member states opposed to the relocation and resettlement program must decide whether the benefits of European membership are worth the loss of governing their borders. And their hand may be forced soon; the EU does not take kindly to disobedience.