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The EU is divided by refugee policy

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
December 15, 2017

The issue of migration is deepening the rift between east and west in the EU. But for a long time now, more fundamental issues such as legal integrity and solidarity have been at stake, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Greek refugee camp Moria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Messinis

The compulsory quotas of asylum seekers that member states were required to accept — which were disputed at the EU summit — are actually out of date. The resolution on quotas, adopted as an emergency measure by a majority of member states in September 2015, was limited to two years. This period has now expired and the resolution has not been extended. The European Court of Justice has dismissed appeals from Hungary and Slovakia against the resolution. They too have to accept asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

The EU Commission is now insisting that several thousand people who have already been identified for resettlement should actually be resettled. It is no longer 120,000, but a maximum of 9,000 people. However, it is not only the central European countries — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — that are refusing to accept a reasonable share of asylum seekers. France, Austria, Spain and others have also registered far fewer admissions in the last two years than they should have.

The quota resolution is dead, long live solidarity

EU Council President Donald Tusk is absolutely right to say that the system did not work and only divided EU Member States. This was also acknowledged by EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos when the scheme expired back in September. Facts and figures clearly speak against enforcing the quota. Why Avramopoulos is now calling Tusk "un-European" remains a mystery.

Riegert Bernd photo for App
Bernd Riegert is DW's correspondent in Brussels

The bitter dispute between the national-populist governments from Warsaw to Vienna on the one hand, and Germany, Italy, Greece and the EU Commission on the other, is no longer about quotas, but about principle. How far does solidarity extend among the EU member states? Which values hold true?

The federation of states cannot allow its members to disregard legitimate political determinations, such as Poland, Hungary and others have done shamelessly. On the other hand, however, it does not make sense to push these states too far into the corner. The reaction then will be defiance, nationalist blustering and the ludicrous assertion that the eastern member states are being treated like second-class members.

But the EU cannot allow the states that bear the main burden of migration to be left to deal with this alone. The pressure must be taken off Greece and Italy. However, an obligatory quota for member states seems to be an unsuitable means of achieving this.

In the EU at present, there is only "outwards solidarity," meaning there is agreement on closing the EU's borders, irrespective of what the consequences may be for asylum seekers or migrants, for example, in Libya. On the other hand, there is no solidarity about resettling asylum seekers who still manage to make it to Europe. This is not acceptable for a community with allegedly shared values.

Reduced funding as a last resort

Moral appeals to the xenophobic Hungarian Prime Minister and his cronies in the other central European states will not help. But the member states that finance the EU can enforce "internal solidarity." The subsidies to recipient countries Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could simply be reduced by the amount that Italy and Greece need to accommodate asylum seekers and refugees in a humane manner. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, threatened this already one year ago — and it hasn't helped yet.

Next year could see things start to get serious, with the EU starting negotiations for the new budget period from 2020 onwards. Those who fail to fulfill their obligations under the EU's migration policy should be able to feel this clearly in their purses. This is not a particularly elegant way of resolving the conflict, but it is probably the only one that could have an effect in the case of states lacking in solidarity. The political divide, however, will certainly not be healed. The EU is facing a difficult test of endurance

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union