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26th Jan 2020

Interview

Czech minister: Our migration policy is now EU mainstream

  • Tomas Prouza: "We were right but we didn't find the proper way to explain it." (Photo: Prague Summit)

The four countries of the Visegrad Group "were right" about the migration crisis and some of their positions have since been adopted by the EU, Czech Europe minister Tomas Prouza has told EUobserver.

The so-called V4 countries - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland - were the most vocal opponents of Germany's welcoming policy towards refugees last year, and of the decision to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries.

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  • Prague. The Czech Republic has been chairing the Visegrad Group for a year (Photo: EUobserver)

In a rare show of discord, Hungary and Slovakia voted against the relocation plan at an EU interior ministers' meeting in September despite their peers' reproaches on lack of solidarity.

"In 2015 we were labelled as European outcasts, but now what we were saying is mainstream," Prouza told this website in an interview on the margins of the Prague European Summit, an event in the Czech capital.

Prouza listed what he said were V4 ideas that the EU has since taken on board as: the creation of a European border and coast guard, "effective" deportations of economic migrants, and making EU development assistance conditional on beneficiary states' help on migration.

For the first time since the group was created in 1991, the V4 were "tough and persuasive" and their pushiness took some people by surprise, Prouza said.

His government has chaired the V4 group since last July and will hand over the post to Poland at the end of the month.

"We were right but we didn't find the proper way to explain it," he said. He said internal V4 differences on migration came from the different political culture in central Europe compared to western Europe.

"When you discuss issues, we immediately go into details," he said about the Czechs and some neighbouring countries. "In Western Europe, you start from the big idea. You agree this is the goal and then you work on the implementation policies", he said.

He said this mindset came from communist times, when "you were not allowed to discuss policy".

"The policy was always set for you. The only thing you could deal with was the implementation,” he said.

“Even if you pretended to agree with the policy coming from Moscow, you could find your way of fine-tuning the implementation", he added.

But in the end, the Czech minister said, EU governments had to overcome differences and find ways to manage the crisis, not least because they had a direct political interest.

'Governments would not survive'

"Everybody understood that politically we could survive one summer of images of tens of thousands of people walking through Europe, but that if we had the same pictures this year some governments would not survive," he said.

"Look at the changes of attitude in Austria and other countries. Nobody was ready to handle that", he added, referring to the fact that Austria almost elected a far-right president in recent elections.

This year could be different for the V4, as Slovakia, another member of the group, takes up the rotating, six-month presidency of the EU Council of ministers on 1 July.

One proposal on the table could be the reform of the Dublin asylum system, in which the European Commission plans to introduce fines for countries that refuse to receive asylum seekers in the relocation scheme.

The Slovak government has suggested that it would not push the discussion forward. The Czech Europe minister said that opening the discussion now "would be divisive and it's not needed at the moment".

"We need to make sure we [EU leaders] are seen to be in control," of migration, he said, referring to public concern on more mass-scale arrivals. "You do that by doing what you have an agreement on", he added.

He said the EU border and coast guard proposal is one such policy that could be quickly implemented without discord.

Fighting smugglers

When the border guard plan was put forward by the Commission, Prouza said, many people thought that it would take five years or more to deal with it. But it is expected to be adopted before July and be operational after summer. "We managed to do that in six months", the Czech minister noted.

The EU still has one big issue to address, he added: "We don't know how to kill the smugglers' marketing."

He said the EU "killed it partially" with the closing of the Greek-Macedonian border in March and the EU-Turkey deal to return some irregular migrants from Greece. But Prouza said smuggler gangs were still luring people to make perilous crossings to Europe with "professionally done videos".

These videos have "no connection to reality", he said.

"For some reason we are weak in fighting that. It is the same weakness that we show in fighting Russian propaganda".

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