While unanimity from the EU’s member-states is still required to introduce some changes within their union, there is in many policy areas an EU procedure (Qualified Majority Voting) that can be used to force through decisions. Where that power exists, there is, however, something of a taboo against using it in a way that risks trespassing into truly sensitive territory.
In the wake of Angela Merkel’s irresponsible, disastrous and (it should not be forgotten) unilateral offer to asylum seekers that’s changed. She made the offer, she has been overwhelmed by the response and she now wants to be bailed out by the ‘partners’ she was too arrogant to consult in the first place. That has opened up a chasm between the EU’s east and west. The easterners have learned a lot from the failures of their western counterparts to manage mass immigration. They have no desire to repeat that dismal experience back home.
That reluctance was not acceptable to the westerners (note that Britain, Ireland and Denmark have the benefit of previously negotiated opt-outs). Citing ‘solidarity’ (in this context, an equivalent of sorts of what, in another time and another bloc, was known as “internationalist” duty), it was decided to use QMV to force four Eastern European countries (Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic) to accept their ‘fair share’ of asylum seekers. Reflecting, I suspect, divisions within its coalition government (which, fortunately in this respect, includes the populist Finns Party), Finland abstained from the vote (and will get its share too). Interestingly, Poland did vote in favor of the quota system, an unexpected betrayal of its Eastern European neighbors, designed, presumably, to curry favor with Germany, a strategy that, historically-minded cynics might think, did not do Poland much good after Munich (click on the link to Cesky Tesin, if you want to see what I mean) and, in the era of Nord Stream 2, is unlikely to do it much good now. It may also mean (richly deserved) trouble for the incumbent Polish government in elections next month. Most Poles are not too keen on bearing someone else’s idea of their ‘fair share’ either.
This display of brute force by the EU’s majority did not play well in small, recently-occupied nations that, for obvious reasons, are highly protective of what remains of their sovereignty. Yes, they have all done very well indeed out of EU membership (which has been a great force for good in the region), but gratitude, or even the idea of a quid pro quo, is not the same as a blank check.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico responded to the vote by claiming that “As long as I am Prime Minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Fico has also threatened to boycott today’s EU leaders’ summit. Czech MEP Jan Zahadril, the former leader of the ECR group, said on Czech TV that the vote would have “fatal consequences on trust in the EU in the Czech Republic. This is not just a lost vote, it fundamentally shakes the way the EU operates.” Jiří Pospíšil, a former Justice Minister and MEP with the pro-EU TOP09 party described the result as “a great defeat for Europe” which would facilitate the rise of anti-EU sentiment.
Predictably enough, Hungary’s Viktor Orban had quite a bit to say too.
Orban accused Merkel of trying to impose her vision of an open European Union on the rest of the bloc. “The most important thing is that there should be no moral imperialism,” he said during a visit to the southern German state of Bavaria.
“I don’t doubt Germany’s right to define its moral obligations for itself. They can decide if they accept every refugee or not… [but] that should only be compulsory for them,” Orban said.
“We are Hungarians however, we cannot think with German minds. Hungary should have the right to control the impact of a mass migration,” he said.
“The Hungarian people don’t want this, we ask that the wishes of Hungarians be respected.”
Well they weren’t, but, encouragingly enough, Orban has been winning some support – in Germany.
BAD STAFFELSTEIN, Germany — Angela Merkel’s conservative Bavarian allies fêted hardline Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as the guardian of the EU’s external borders — a direct rebuke of the chancellor and her refugee policy. Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer had already infuriated Merkel by inviting the Hungarian prime minister to a gathering of his Christian Social Union, the sister party of the chancellor’s Christian Democrats. At the event Wednesday, Seehofer went even further than expected.
“We need Hungary to secure the outer borders of the EU,” Seehofer told a joint news conference with Orbán, whom he said “deserves support, not criticism. In the federal state of Bavaria, he enjoys this support.”
“We’re now in a state of mind without rules, without system and without order because of a German decision,” said Seehofer, speaking of the need to restore order and open both in his admiration of Orbán for “striving to achieve this goal” and his criticism towards Merkel.
Officials in Berlin were seething with anger, with one calling the CSU leader’s remarks “outrageous.”
If anyone has been ‘outrageous’, it is, of course, Merkel, an over-promoted apparatchik whose trademark blend of clumsiness and authoritarianism is a reminder that, while absolutely no communist, she is very much the product of her East German past.
Writing in Lithuania’s Delfi, Kestutis Girnius notes:
Germany cannot take in a million or two million refugees and then demand that other EU countries host big shares of that number. You cannot invite people over and then tell your neighbours that they’ll sleep in their homes.
Latvian MEP (and former defense minister) Artis Pabriks in Atlantic Community:
Leading Western politicians have been publicly and behind the scenes threatening smaller, poorer and less powerful Eastern European countries with cutting their structural funds or taking other revenge steps if they will not comply and accept the [quota] proposal.
Ah, European ‘family’ values.
Reasonably enough, Pabriks argues that the EU’s West has little effort to understand why (beyond, I would add, some fairly crude stereotyping) Eastern Europeans have been none too enthusiastic about a mandatory quota scheme.
Most Eastern European countries are among the poorest in the Union and it is believed that any large additional influx of people will negatively reflect on the economic situation at home.
It should be remembered that all the EU’s Eastern European countries have seen high levels of emigration over the last decade or so, a phenomenon that reflects both the greater opportunities elsewhere in the EU and, particularly during the financial crisis, sometimes dramatic downturns in their local economies.
Such countries as the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are not only relatively poor compared to the [EU] average…but they also historically experienced an unprecedented immigration from the Soviet Union after WWII when they were occupied by the Soviets. Almost one third of their populations are made up from first and second generation Soviet immigrants whose integration in host societies remains painful. Any additional migration burden on these small countries will reflect on the population not only economically but culturally and linguistically, as well.
His number is exaggerated for Lithuania, which now has a relatively small ‘Russian-speaking’ population (around 6 percent). In Latvia and Estonia, however, the figures are some 31 and 27 percent respectively.
In the end, the Baltic trio voted to support the imposition of quotas on grounds that were, I suspect, both pragmatic and bleakly realistic. Pragmatic because the numbers headed their way (on this occasion at least) are very small (around five hundred in Latvia’s case), and bleakly realistic, because they won’t want to risk alienating their larger, richer EU partners in a time when their Russian neighbor is looking more than a touch menacing.
[Latvian] Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics warned Tuesday that failure to show solidarity could have consequences in the EU and NATO for Latvia, which is reliant on other countries to patrol its airspace.
And all this is for what? Forcing people on unwilling hosts is unlikely to work well. The best bet is that, as soon as they can, Eastern Europe’s new migrants will be looking for more hospitable (and more prosperous) havens elsewhere in the EU. Meanwhile, Brussels, Berlin and Paris have given the best possible boost they could to populist and euroskeptic parties in Eastern Europe (and not just Eastern Europe), something that will not have escaped the attention of Vladimir Putin, especially as there are many more migrants to come.
Oh well played, Angela, well played.