Brussels: Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to relocate tens of thousands of refugees from Italy and Greece to elsewhere on the continent was forced through last night (Tuesday) against the wishes of four eastern European states.
In a profoundly divisive move that risks permanently damaging relations within the union, a quota scheme to spread 120,000 refugees across Europe was approved by a qualified majority vote of interior ministers.
The plan, driven by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president, was pushed through after they split Poland from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, the rest of the Visegrad bloc of central and eastern European states that had been united in opposition to the plan.
“In the name of European solidarity, we are very thankful to our Polish friends for voting with us,” said Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, afterwards.
Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, said the vote was “unprecedented” and that his country would not accept the quotas.
The Czech government has warned that it simply will not work, given that most refugees do not want to be “relocated” to anywhere but Germany or Sweden. The Czech Republic called the plan “illegal” and has already threatened to take the issue to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
“We will soon realise that the emperor has no clothes. Common sense lost today,” Milan Chovanec, the Czech interior minister, tweeted.
The use of a majority vote fulfils the worst fears of diplomats, who said it would cause long-term damage to the European Union.
“It will be a big moment if they do it,” said one beforehand. “There will be blood on the walls and on the carpets.”
The scheme will distribute 66,000 refugees from Greece and Italy around the EU. A further 54,000 were to have come from Hungary, but it has refused to take part in what it calls an “invitation” to economic migrants.
The additional number will now come from Greece and Italy or other countries on the migration front line, such as Croatia and Austria.
Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean asylum-seekers would qualify for the programme, but the logistics of how they will be distributed have still to be worked out.
Britain is not taking part, but arriving at the summit yesterday Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said that Europe has to tackle the root cause of the crisis. Her words reflect British concern that EU leaders have wasted months horse-trading over a quota scheme that migration experts believe will not work.
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said that the refugee crisis would help Britain’s renegotiation by convincing eastern European countries of the need to curb migration.
“Interestingly, some of the countries that we have seen today who have the most robust views on the external migration agenda have been the ones also with the very strong views around ‘no change to freedom of movement internally’,” he said.
Dr Jeff Crisp, of Oxford University, said: “The question is where people will go to – what will someone who wants to join their family in Gothenburg do when they are told they are going to Lisbon or Poland?” Instead, Britain has promised more than pounds 1?billion in aid to deal with the Syrian crisis in the region, and promised to take 20,000 refugees directly from camps in Turkey and north Africa.
“We need to resolve this issue today so that we can actually get on with the job of dealing with the wider measures that Europe needs to take to deal with the migrant crisis,” Mrs May said.
There are fears that unless the mass migration is halted, the Schengen system of free movement – regarded by integrationists as the crown jewel of the European project – will shatter.
Yesterday Norway – which is not an EU member but is a signatory to the Schengen agreement – became the latest state to impose border checks.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that Europe could expect a record one million people to request asylum this year, and almost half would probably qualify to be taken in.
Fears of Europe’s inability to cope with the influx have been increased by chaotic scenes at borders and evidence that migrants have been disguising their nationalities to improve their chances of being accepted.
Hungary has found “mini-cemeteries” of abandoned identity documents at its borders as migrants try to disguise their identities before crossing into the country, the ambassador to London said yesterday.
The missing documents often make it impossible to tell genuine refugees from economic migrants, said Peter Szabadhegy, in a briefing designed to defend Hungary’s decision to fence off its borders to migrants trying to reach Europe.
Viktor Orban, the country’s Right-wing prime minister, has said that the influx of mainly Muslim migrants from the likes of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan could end up running into the millions, threatening Europe’s identity as a Christian continent.
Mr Szabadhegy told reporters that Britons had been jamming the switchboard of Hungary’s embassy in London, mostly with messages of support for Budapest’s stance on the migrant crisis.”
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