Eastern and Central Europe: re-thinking the concept of Solidarity

EASTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE: RE-THINKING THE CONCEPT OF SOLIDARITY

By S.Ferroni

OVERVIEW:

The rift within the European Union on the migrants’ topic is growing month by month between the Visegard group (plus Austria, Croatia and Slovenia) and other EU members. Since the beginning of the refugees’ crisis Central and Eastern Europe have been taking the initiative on their own on the matter of migrants by refusing any Brussels’ attempt to share responsibilities and support for those countries mainly affected by the consequences of this dramatic phenomenon. Not only have these countries gradually built a wall on their borders, but also between them and the European directives. The establishment of the Central European Defence Cooperation, which is aimed at militarily protecting South-Eastern borders against illegal migrants, and the stand against the refugees’ redistribution are the main battle grounds. Furthermore, what should be considered alarming is the dissemination of Islamophobic and xenophobic trends in both large portions of the population, and within national authorities. It is clear that Central and Eastern European countries won’t enter into negotiation on migration.

In this article, we will provide you with a general overview of both causes and effects that brought the European Union to be at loggerheads with Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic.

It is worthwhile to spend a few words explaining the current situation of the migrant’s routes towards Europe and the Regulations applied by the European Union to face migrant’s waves, reporting numbers to contextualize and make you aware of the proportion of this crisis.

BACKGROUND:

Since the broke out of the Syrian Civil War and the downfall of Ghedaffi in Libya, Europe is dealing with the greatest humanitarian crisis of forcibly displaced people since the end of the Second World War.

According to Frontex’s report 283.532 migrants irregularly entered the European Union in 2014. Among these 170.664 in Italy (a 277% increase compared to 2013) and 50,834 in Greece through Turkey (a 105% increase). 2015 was the most dramatic period of this phenomenon, the number of migrants reported by Frontex was 1.82 million (872,938 in Greece, 764,038 in Hungary and Croatia and 153,946 in Italy), which should be reduced to approximately one million, cause most of the people were double-counted firstly in Greece, and secondly in Hungary or in Croatia. as a result of the EU-Turkey deal (signed in March 2016), which envisages Turkey to stop migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea, a significant downtrend has been reported in 2016. For example, in April 2016 the number of arrivals in Greece dropped 90% compared to the previous month. However, the flow of landings in Italy continued without changes. In 2017, 85% of arrivals were reported in the Italian peninsula. Overall the number of migrants arriving into the EU has dropped, but the EU still is creating agencies and plans to mitigate the crisis.

These dramatic numbers have been managed according to the Dublin regulation, which entails that the country responsible for the evaluation of the asylum application is the state through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU. This regulation has been established to prevent asylum applicants from seeking to apply in a state after transiting others (asylum shopping practice). However, this system affects mainly border countries, namely Italy, Greece and Hungary. Indeed, the Greek asylum system has been declared collapsed in 2015 even though approximately 1 billion EUR has been invested there in humanitarian aid. In the same year Hungarian became overburdened by asylum applications, at that point Germany accepted the responsibility for processing Syrian asylum applications. This system is criticized because of its inadequate response and flexibility to the crisis. In brief, the Dublin regulation involves entrusting management of the migrant phenomenon to the mere geography.

To deal with this dramatic inflow of migrants, the European Union has elaborated a refugee relocation system to support those countries mainly affected by the mass inflow and asylum applications. Overall, this system envisages the relocation of approximately 160.000 people in need of international protection from one of the three EU “border” members to another EU country based on a distribution key calculated upon objective criteria: 40% of the size of the population, 40% of the GDP, 10% of the average number of past asylum applications, 10% of the unemployment rate. Furthermore, the process of asylum recognition is more effective thanks to a common European list of Safe Countries of Origin, which benefits those nationalities such as Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis.

Up till now, less than 20.000 refugees have been relocated out of 160.000.

RE-THINKING THE CONCEPT OF SOLIDARITY

The Central European Defence Cooperation was founded in 2010 as a common-defence-group aimed at protecting the South-Eastern borders. This group consist of six EU members, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia and Poland as observer partner. Since 2016, the core question of CEDC’s agenda was the effort to ensure the control of the Balkan route in the broader context of the refugees’ crisis, also identified as mass-illegal-migration phenomenon from their perspective. During the last meeting, which took place in Prague the 19th of June, it was established that in the event the Balkan route was reopened all the member-of-the-treaty army would respond together to the call of duty on the European borders to tackle illegal migration. This joint action plan is aimed to make sure that all asylum seekers must apply for international protection in designed application centres beyond European borders.

This agreement should be contextualized in the broader rift within the European Union. Indeed, the meeting took place just one week after the decision of the European Commission to open sanctions procedure against Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic over refugees. By strengthening this defence-cooperation, Central and Eastern governments seem to have thrown down the gauntlet raising the tension with Brussels.

The 13th of June the EU opened sanctions procedure against Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic over refugees for refusing to take in their share of refugees under the controversial relocation plan.

“I regret to see that despite our repeated calls to pledge to relocate, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have not yet taken the necessary action. For this reason, the commission has decided to launch infringement procedures against these three-member states… I sincerely hope that these member states can still reconsider their position and contribute fairly.” – D. Avramopoulos.

Poland and Hungary refused the relocation of 6.182 and 1.294 refugees, respectively. Regarding Czech Republic, even though it had initially taken in 12 people from its assigned quota of 2,679, it said at the beginning of June it would take no more, citing security concerns. Overall, it can be easily reported a general resistance against Brussels’ migration policy all over the Central and Eastern Europe, where the relocation system didn’t work effectively. As a matter of fact, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia agreed to receive less than 300 asylum seekers (whom 200 in Slovenia only) instead of the 5.000 expected by the 2015 solidarity plan. Bratislava will not be object of legal action by the European Union because it agreed to relocate 16 refugees out of 902. However, Slovakia seems to be the most active in the Eastern group in helping asylum seekers. Indeed, at the end of 2015 it has voluntary resettled 149 Iraqi Christians from Greece and has pledged to take in 100 refugees from Greece on a voluntary basis, whereas 500 scholarships for Syrian teenagers have been assigned.

Presently, the Visegard group has relocated 28 refugees in total out of 11.069.

The sanctions are aimed at forcing these countries to accept the foreseen numbers of refugees. If this should not happen a penalty of 250.000 EUR must be paid to the EU for every asylum seeker refused entry.

Responses by the respective governments were not long in coming. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka complained saying that the Commission is insisting in pushing ahead dysfunctional quota, and given the non-functional EU migrant policy Prague would not participate in it. Witold Waszczykowski, Polish foreign minister replied saying that they (Poland) strongly believe that most of the refugees do not need international protection. Victor Orban, Hungarian President, stated firmly, “We will not give in to blackmail from Brussels and we reject the mandatory relocation quota”.

By re-thinking the concept of solidarity, Eastern members are trying to develop an alternative strategy. The Visegard’s solution would tackle illegal migration by building hotspots outside of the Schengen Zone and not by relocating asylum-seekers between member states, cause this system would not reduce the mass inflow in the old-continent. These governments justify their approach by framing the problem in the narrative of security issue and the cultural incompatibility of largely Muslim migrants. Furthermore, from their point of view, forcing asylum seekers to live in a country where they do not want to stay would be counter-productive and dangerous for both sides.

Marcin Zaborowski, executive vice-president of the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Warsaw, explained to The Guardianseveral reasons for this reluctance of Eastern EU members. Firstly, countries like Czech Republic and Poland have been currently hosting more than 1.5 million of Ukrainian both workers and refugees, with growing social tensions even if a similar culture of origin. Secondly, the German example of “open-doors-to-refugees” system turned out to be premature and counter-productive escalating the influx. This is the reason why there is a reluctance to share in the implications of Berlin’s decision. Thirdly, Eastern and Central European countries have no practical and cultural experience in dealing with refugees and extra-European migrants. Finally, these countries prefer a more concrete external action by improving the situation directly in refugees’ camps, cooperating with African nations, and tackling with the network of human traffickers.

What is worrying the EU is the nationalistic and Islamophobic narrative that is widespread throughout both popular and political sphere. Migrants are perceived as a threat for Visegard’s society, which is characterized by ethnical homogenous. As Jan Culik explained in an article of EuropeNow, “there is a synergy of several historical, cultural, political, and economic factors has created this fiercely hostile reaction”. The Central and Eastern countries after having lost their traditional multiculturality after the WWII, they were cut off from social and political developments in Western Europe and migration experiences. Furthermore, the feeling of being threatened by foreign forces led to a defensive nationalism aimed to preserve their delicate cultural heritage. Religion is playing a crucial role as be the bulwark that should be defended against the “Muslim invasion”. This position is creating discomfort in parts of the hierarchy of the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

A good Christian is someone who helps, not necessarily by accepting refugees” – Elżbieta Witek, chief of the prime minister’s cabinet office.

This institutional reaction against migrants is gradually leading to Human Rights violations by governmental initiatives, such as the mass detention of asylum seekers in “concentration camps” in Hungary, tolerance of far-right manifestations in Warsaw and Prague, and fake-news narratives.

What is curious is how much these countries are distressed by a few thousands of asylum seekers, which have already been screened and accepted, could compromise the ethnical and cultural security of their citizens. For instance, Poland was expected to relocate 6.000 refugees, and this group for a country of 38.000.000 accounts for 0,0158% only. An insignificant minority.

CUTTING EU COHESION FUNDS

In addition to the fines addressed to the rebellious countries, under German and Finnish initiative, it has been presented the proposal to cut EU cohesion funds for those countries that violate rule of law. Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic are the net recipients of this funding system and this action would deeply affect their development policies. Petteri Orpo, Finnish Minister of Finance quoted: “If we want the EU and its financing to be fair, then we need to be able to discuss this … Our goal is that everyone should be jointly responsible (for the migration crisis).” Soon after his compatriot Jyrki Katainen Commissioner, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness “Solidarity is not a one-way street. It’s at least a two-way street. Otherwise, there is no solidarity,” he said.

CONCLUSION

By reviewing the current situation, the European Union is dealing with a trial of strength with Central and Eastern member states, which show no intention in finding a common place by resisting against both immigrants from the South and Brussels’s pressure from the West. Furthermore, the recently opened sanctions could be a backfire by widening the rift between these two blocs at a time when Poland and Hungary are on the verge of a defensive nationalism.

The Union must maintain and reinforce the European balance of power, at all costs, otherwise other “-exit” are likely to happen.