The dispute within the EU over the relocation of refugees from Greece and Italy to other countries is now reaching a head, pitting eastern member states, who refuse to take in their allocated share, against their western partners. Following recent calls from the likes of Sweden and Finland to punish those who fail to play their part in easing the burden of the migration crisis, the European Commission today began legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
This is a terrible idea.
Let me first make two things clear. I agree completely with the principle underlying western member states’ anger. Poland, a country that has benefited more than any other from EU membership, should be prepared to show solidarity with its overburdened partners by taking in what is a tiny number of refugees. Second, I wish that the Poles, a people who throughout their history have regularly found themselves fleeing war and persecution, felt more empathy with and sympathy towards those fleeing conflict and repression in other parts of the world.
But just because I want this to be the case doesn’t make it so. We have to deal with the reality – and that reality is that trying to force refugees on an unwilling Poland benefits no one, and could have harmful long-term consequences. It risks turning Poles, the nation most enthusiastic about the EU, into eurosceptics. It strengthens the position of the current government (hardly something the EU wants to do) and risks distracting from the EU’s other, more legitimate, areas of concern about the direction PiS is taking Poland in. And all this for little, if any, benefit, given that the refugee-relocation scheme, always a symbolic rather than practical solution, is already failing.
Many Poles rightly feel that, while they willingly signed up to the obligations that come with EU membership, including freedom of movement, there was no indication that this would include the compulsory relocation of refugees. In fact, the opposite is true: when Poland joined the EU, the Dublin Regulation decreed that refugees should seek asylum in the first EU country they reached, and that this country would be responsible for their care. However, when unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers began to arrive in 2015, Italy and Greece stopped enforcing the regulation, leading Germany to suspend deportations.
Subsequently, the whole refugee-relocation scheme was pushed through on an extremely shaky foundation. Traditionally, issues pertaining to national sovereignty are approved unanimously by member states, but the relocation plan – coming at the height of the refugee crisis, when leaders were desperate to look like they were doing something– was forced through using the ‘nuclear option‘ of a qualified majority vote. As an EU official admitted at the time, such a move was ‘legally possible, but politically counterproductive’, and that ‘we cannot send asylum seekers where they are not welcome’.
Such manoeuvres are damaging to the legitimacy of the EU. Poles are vehemently opposed to the plan: 70% want to stop all migration from Muslim countries; and 40% say they would prefer financial penalties to accepting the refugee quota, twice as many as hold the opposition view. Even among supporters of pro-EU parties, 25-30% say they would rather accept the punishment. One may not like the prejudices that underlie such views (though of course there are also legitimate security concerns), but it’s simply a fact that this issue risks turning even those sympathetic towards the EU against it.
Particularly worrying is that for a whole generation of young Poles, their formative experience of the EU is its attempt to force unwanted migrants upon them. Two weeks ago, during a Children’s Day event in parliament, a whole series of teenagers gave speeches calling for Poland to ‘say “No” to Islamic immigrants’ and declaring that the ‘the EU must be destroyed’. Opinion polls show that among those in their teens and early 20s, by far the most popular political parties are nationalists who have based their platform on rejecting Muslim migrants.
Moreover, pursuing this issue hinders the European Commission in its other various conflicts with the Polish government in areas like the rule of law, environmental protection and limiting emissions. These are all legitimate points of concern, in which Poland is challenging fundamental EU values and undermining solidarity. By throwing in the less clear-cut issue of refugee relocation, the EU risks distracting from these more important issues.
It also allows the Polish government to further its narrative that this is all part of a broader effort by the EU to impose a set of values on Poland that relate not just to the rule of law and environmental protection, but also impinge on its sovereign right to control its own borders, cultural identity and security. Polling shows that most Poles support the EU in its disputes with PiS over the Constitutional Tribunal and logging in Białowieża Forest. Aggressively pursuing the unpopular refugee issue undermines this support and allows the government to deflect international criticism.
Worst of all, this damage is being done for no benefit whatsoever. The relocation scheme was always somewhat tokenistic, aiming to resettle just 160,000 out of the millions who have arrived in Europe. Yet it has failed at even this limited goal. Struggling to find enough eligible candidates for resettlement, the EU revised down its target to an even less ambitious 100,000. With only a few months to go until the two-year deadline, only 21,000 refugees have been relocated so far, despite most EU countries agreeing to take some in.
And even if the EU somehow manage to get the refugees into Poland, what kind of life awaits them there? They would find themselves in a country deeply hostile to Muslims, where there has in recent years been a growing number of xenophobic attacks. It is also a country in which economic opportunities and living standards are far below those in western member states.
In such circumstances, it is inevitable that the refugees will, at the first opportunity, move west to work on the black market. This is precisely what has already happened in Lithuania, where virtually all the refugees resettled under the EU’s scheme jumped on the first bus to Germany. Likewise, many of the Chechen refugees arriving at the EU’s eastern border who claim asylum in Poland, as the first country they reach, quickly move on to Germany, complaining about the ‘skinhead threats, lack of adequate social services, and hopelessness of trying to integrate’ in Poland.
The EU is facing a number of challenges concerning its relationship with its eastern members. Picking an unnecessary fight over a dubious and failing relocation scheme – one in which any victory would be Pyrrhic – risks distracting from, and diminishing the EU’s legitimacy in, other, much more important areas.