Thursday 22 February 2018

EU vote raises tensions among member states

A Syrian refugee child is carried off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Photo: Reuters
A Syrian refugee child is carried off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Photo: Reuters

Pawel Swidlicki in Brussels

EU member states have agreed to relocate 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries (not including the UK) despite fierce opposition from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, who voted against the proposal. Finland abstained before eventually voting in favour; Poland and the Baltic states also held deep reservations.

Notwithstanding the fact that the scheme has a number of practical flaws, and does nothing to address the underlying causes of the migration crisis, riding roughshod over national sensitivities and democratic preferences in such a sensitive area is also likely to have significant and far-reaching consequences for the EU's future.

The backlash has been instant, with Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico proclaiming: "As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory." Poland's likely next prime minister Beata Szydlo described the vote as a "scandal" - indeed, the decision of the Civic Platform government could well seal its defeat in next month's parliamentary elections. Even Jiri Pospisil, MEP with the pro-EU TOP09 party, described the result as "a great defeat for Europe".

Perhaps tensions will ease in the short term and the member states that voted against will end up accepting their share of refugees, although it remains to be seen whether and how the EU will try to force them to do so if they maintain their opposition. Moreover, with the UNHCR estimating that some 478,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to reach the EU so far this year, it is clear that the relocation member states have agreed to will not be sufficient. This could lead to a much larger round of quotas appearing on the table and a precedent will have been set.

It could be argued that these countries could and should take in significantly more refugees; with shrinking labour forces it would be in their own economic self-interest. In addition, some of the opposition is motivated by racism and Islamophobia.

However, there is also significant concern among mainstream public opinion about integration and community cohesion. This spans the political spectrum - it is worth bearing in mind that the Slovakian government is centre-left, as is the largest party in the Czech coalition government. Ultimately, in such a sensitive area, the EU should try harder to accommodate national democratic preferences. Enforced solidarity is an oxymoron.

Therefore, this week's vote could prompt a fundamental re-think, particularly in central and eastern Europe, as to which powers should be given up to the EU level and which ones should be retained nationally. While these member states have benefited from joining the EU, recent developments may lead many to reassess the costs and benefits of membership. Just as in the UK, for some the principles of democracy and national sovereignty will trump the economic considerations.

The fallout from the crisis could play into the UK's hands as it renegotiates its own relationship with the EU.

All this only reinforces the UK's arguments about the desirability of a more decentralised EU.

Irish Independent

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