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Are the Visegrad states sealing off the EU?

The Visegrad states want to shut down the Balkan route to refugees. In doing so, they could effectively exclude Greece from the Schengen zone. DW's Christoph Hasselbach looks at the issues.

The Visegrad group is made up of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It was founded 25 years ago to promote the European integration of these four former Communist states. They joined the European Union in 2004. Now, though, they seem more set on promoting European division.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's idea of distributing refugees around the EU is anathema to them. They also reject the plan for Turkey to prevent refugees from traveling on to Europe, with the EU taking quotas of refugees from Turkey in return. The Slovakian foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, told the news magazine Der Spiegel that "quotas only offer greater incentives for migration."

The Visegrad governments regard Chancellor Merkel as principally responsible for the influx of refugees. "It's a simple idea," the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, remarked sarcastically not long ago. "I'll invite some guests, and when I realize I can't cope with all of them I'll knock on the neighbor's door and say to him: Look after my guests." The Visegrad countries don't want to be that neighbor.

Europäische Volkspartei Madrid Angela Merkel und Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Chancellor Angela Merkel

No choice?

They now want to solve the problem by themselves. To do this, they want to seal off the Balkan route. Hundreds of refugees are still reaching Greece from Turkey every day, and from there they travel north via Macedonia. As the EU country they arrive in, Greece should be responsible for processing their asylum applications. But Athens feels overwhelmed, and is just letting most of the refugees travel on.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban says they have no choice. "If it had been up to us, the region would have been sealed off long ago," he said recently. Lajcak, the Slovakian foreign minister, told Der Spiegel that "as long as there is no joint European strategy, it's legitimate for the states along the Balkan route to protect their borders. We're helping them do that." Orban believes that in doing this he is not just serving particular interests but fulfilling a greater European mission. "We must safeguard the security of the continent," he has said. The Visegrad leaders don't seen their demand as putting pressure on Macedonia and other states along the Balkan route, but as supporting them. The Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks of it as "solidarity" with the countries of the western Balkans.

The central European EU countries attracted a great deal of criticism in the western European Union as early as last autumn, when they refused to take in any appreciable number of refugees. There was even talk of punishing them by cutting the aid they receive from the EU. Now, though, they have more and more supporters. Last weekend, even the French prime minister Manuel Valls rejected fixed quotas – a stab in the back for Angela Merkel. Austria too is increasingly leaning towards isolation.

Schengen under pressure

If Macedonia and Bulgaria really do close their borders with Greece, this would effectively exclude Greece from the border-control-free Schengen zone. Even in Merkel's own CDU party, Schengen in its current form is no longer sacrosanct. Wolfgang Steiger, the general secretary of the CDU's economic council, told Die Welt newspaper that if a country fails to meet its responsibilities for securing the EU's external borders, "then Schengen must shift towards central Europe."

For Greece, the sealing of its northern border would mean it ends up stuck with the refugees. The Greek government is already trying to brace the country for this possibility. "We have to prepare ourselves for a (large) number of people who will stay in Greece," said the deputy minister responsible for migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, in an interview with the Avgi newspaper.

Italy, another country where many refugees set foot in the EU for the first time, is warning that exclusion will set a precedent. Like Greece, Italy has often simply waved the refugees through. On a visit to Greece, Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian house of representatives, was quoted by Greek media as saying that "the idea of exclusion - Greece today and Italy tomorrow - is a renunciation of the principles and values of Europe."

Germany's Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, believes the plans to seal the borders are very dangerous. He and his fellow party member, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, have written a letter to all the EU's social democrat heads of government, saying that "Europe's external borders cannot simply be redefined - over the heads, furthermore, of the affected member states." The two politicians fear that, in a Greece already economically on its knees, this will cause total chaos to break out.

There's little time left for a European solution. The EU heads of state and government will make another attempt, starting this Thursday.