22 September 2015

EU Interior Ministers have this afternoon voted to re-distribute 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU member states (not including the UK which has an opt-out). The big news was that four member states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania – voted against while Finland abstained. Not only will this not address the underlying problems behind the refugee crisis, it is hard to see this as anything else but the trampling of national democratic preferences which is likely to have significant and far-reaching consequences, including for the UK’s renegotiation.

Mandatory or ‘Voluntary’?

A key feature of the opposition to the quotas was that they allowed the Commission to dictate how many refugees each member state would have to take, and that this would become a permanent, binding mechanism. Although the full agreement has not yet been published, reports suggest that the number of refugees each country will take in will not be imposed by the Commission but rather agreed upon on an inter-governmental basis. However, as an unnamed EU official cited by Politico acknowledges, “in many cases the number of refugees to take in is very similar to the numbers proposed by the Commission”.

It remains to be seen how this ‘voluntary’ scheme will operate in practice, and whether those member states that voted against can be forced to take part – it hardly seems credible that vulnerable people will be forced to go to a country that does not want to take them in and which they themselves do not want to settle in. In addition, given that that many more refugees have entered Europe since the Commission’s proposals were tabled, the issue of mandatory quotas is likely to come back around at some point.

A “great defeat for Europe”?

The response from the member states that were outvoted as been swift and brutal. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has claimed that “migrant quotas will not be implemented in Slovakia” for as long as he remains Prime Minister. 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.” Even 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.

Poland as the key swing state?

Even without Poland there would have still have been a qualified majority in favour of the redistribution but it remains an open question as to whether the proposals would have been forced through had Poland retained its opposition – it would have been a much bigger deal outvoting Poland than ‘just’ the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, and it would have highlighted the East/West split within the bloc. As it is, supporters of the proposals can claim a degree of pan-EU consensus.

Conversely, it could also be the case the Polish government realised it would be outvoted anyway and decided it would look less bad to change its position citing a number of wins – as the Polish Europe Minister did – than to appear impotent in such a sensitive area one month away from the parliamentary elections. Either way, given where public opinion is on the subject of refugees, today’s developments are likely to seal the deal for Law and Justice who are likely to adopt a more EU-critical stance in the run-up to the vote.

Re-distribution will not address the underlying causes of the crisis

Aside from a number of practical considerations – supporters of the scheme have not credibly answered the question of how refugees will be prevented from moving elsewhere within the EU – the quota scheme does nothing to address the continued flow of refugees into Europe. Member states may have agreed to redistribute 160,000 refugees (120,000 today plus the 40,000 agreed earlier) within the next couple of years but according to UNHCR estimates, almost that many refugees arrived in Greece between January and mid-August this year alone.

EU leaders are due to meet tomorrow to discuss precisely that – issues like providing humanitarian assistance to countries neighboring Syria to disincentivise refugees from making the journey in the first place – however so much time and political capital has been wasted on the divisive issue of quotas which should be one of the last steps, once the immediate situation has been brought under control. Instead, the atmosphere ahead of the summit has been toxified and the row over quotas will likely continue to impede the search for practical solutions.

The result could prompt rethink about the EU’s powers which could benefit the UK

It is fair to say that these countries signed up to these rules and agreed to having them decided under QMV. Nonetheless, circumstances change and the result could prompt a fundamental re-think, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, as to what powers should be given up to the EU level and which ones should be retained nationally.

This could in turn benefit the UK which has long been arguing for a more decentralised EU with areas that are particularly sensitive, such as asylum policy, being subject to domestic, democratic control. In addition, the precedent of having France and Germany force through their preferred policy could serve as an eye-opener for these member states who have been by and large been used to getting their way in the EU and a potential preview of what the EU would be like without the UK. Whatever its other effects, this could therefore be an unexpected boon for the UK’s renegotiation efforts.