On this week's "Conflict Zone," Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak explains why he disagrees with the EU's refugee quota system and why he rejects accusations that Slovakia discriminates on the basis of religion.
In the midst of all of this, Slovakia just took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time. That means that for the next six months, Slovakia, a country of only 5 million people, will be in charge of shaping and influencing the legislation and policy of the EU.
Together with the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union is the main decision-making body of the EU, where government ministers from all EU countries meet to negotiate and adopt EU laws based on proposals by the European Commission. They also develop the EU's foreign and security policy.
But is Slovakia up to the job? To find out, "Conflict Zone" host Tim Sebastian sat down with Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.
Is the EU turning a blind eye on Turkey?
Turkey is an important country for the EU. It's a NATO member and it's the most significant transit country for migrants and refugees. Pressured to significantly reduce the number of migrants and refugees coming into Europe, the EU agreed a 6 billion-euro refugee deal with Turkey a few months ago to take in refugees deported from Europe.
Many critics say that it's this refugee deal that has led the EU to turning a blind eye on Turkey's human rights violations and a crackdown on press freedom.
On "Conflict Zone," Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak discussed the recent turmoil in Turkey and said that he expressed "strong support for the President and the constitutional order" after Turkey's failed military coup, while at the same time expressing "concern that certain limits shouldn’t be crossed."
"Every time the situation in Turkey deteriorates you express concern but you don’t do anything,” says Tim Sebastian to Mirislaw Lajcak
Tim Sebastian confronted Lajcak, saying that Turkey has long crossed limits when it comes to human rights violations as well as a crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech. He asked Lajcak whether the EU has turned a blind eye towards these violations in order to keep their refugee deal with Turkey. Lajcak denied that was the case.
"We need to be engaged in a dialogue, be it a critical dialogue, but how else do you want to change the situation?" he said. "A critical dialogue is the best way to talk about things and to eventually improve things. (…) Engagement is always better then disengagement. If we don't talk, somebody else will."
Suing the EU over refugee quotas
Last summer, European leaders adopted a relocation and resettlement scheme that foresaw quotas to distribute 120,000 refugees among all EU member states. Several member states, including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, have refused to implement the mandatory quotas.
The quotas were voted on by the interior ministers of the EU, but now Slovakia is taking the EU to court to fight the decision.
"Our people have not been exposed to Muslims and they are frightened. It's a new phenomenon for them," says Lajcak
Slovakia is supposed to give asylum to 802 refugees as part of the relocation program. But in February, Slovakia filed a lawsuit against the EU's relocation plan, claiming the mandatory quotas were "nonsensical and technically impossible."
When Tim Sebastian pointed out that Slovakia currently holds the presidency of the EU and is supposed to retain unity rather than suing the EU over the refugee quota system, Lajcak said:
"The fact that we turned to the court is not an unprecedented thing, it is a normal instrument of European politics. Let's have the court decide. And I see absolutely no contradiction and absolutely no problem in that."
Are Muslim refugees a threat to Slovakia?
Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico has made several anti-Muslim statements in the past. In March, he told an election rally in Bratislava that he "will never allow a single Muslim immigrant under a quota system." He also said he has to "protect Slovakia" from Muslim refugees and that "every Muslim in Slovakia" is being monitored.
Prime Minister Robert Fico, a Social Democrat, vowed during his campaign not to tolerate any Muslim communities in Slovakia
Confronted with his leader's comments, Lajcak denied there is any discrimination on the grounds of religion in Slovakia, which is prohibited by the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.
"Everyone who has ever asked for asylum in Slovakia was granted asylum if that person met the conditions. There was never any discrimination based on religion."
Lajcak further said his country just has to get used to Muslim refugees first.
"You have to understand the fact that there are countries which have been open to other cultures for centuries, and there are countries for which this is a new experience. And this cannot be ordered overnight. It has to be a process. You have to explain it to people. They have to get used to it."
Slovakia's foreign minister continued by saying: "People are afraid of what they don't know."
"Our people have not been exposed to Muslims and they are frightened. It's a new phenomenon for them (…). Hundreds of Muslims mean nothing in Belgium or London but it does mean something in Slovakia."