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18th Mar 2019

Czechs pick 'useless' fight with EU on migration

  • The Czech Republic "will not participate in the quotas since they are not functioning," said its prime minister Sobotka (r). (Photo: Czech government)

[Updated on Thursday 15 June at 8.55] The Czech government has engaged in an arm wrestling match with the European Commission over the asylum seeker relocation scheme at the risk of losing money and political clout.

On Tuesday (13 June), the EU executive launched an infringement procedure against the Czech Republic as well as against Hungary and Poland for failing to take their share of refugees since the scheme was launched in 2015.

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"These are the three member states that have not, I repeat, have not done anything for more than one year or even for the whole duration of the scheme," EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Brussels.

The Czech Republic has so far taken in 12 asylum seekers out of the 2,691 it was required to accept.

"The Czech Republic does not agree with the system," prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka replied in a statement.

He said that his country "will not participate in the quotas since they are not functioning."

Prague has a month to answer the Commission's concerns. Sobotka warned that his government was "prepared to consistently defend [its] stance in the EU and in the respective judicial institutions."

The Commission's decision comes a week after the Czech government officially announced it would stop participating in the relocation scheme, although it had not anyway pledged any places since May 2016 and had not relocated anyone since August.

The announcement, just before Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker came to Prague for a defence conference and meetings with ministers, is widely seen in the Czech capital as a mistake.

"I don't understand why they took that decision," a Czech source told EUobserver.

The government "provoked the Commission by openly communicating its decision" at that moment, Vladimir Bartovic, the director of Europeum, the Prague-based Institute for European Policy, told this website.

"The Commission was pushed in a corner. There is clearly a violation, they had to react," he said.

Bartovic admitted that there was "a rationale" and "long-term conviction" behind the decision.

Since the Commission proposed to relocate asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, the Czech Republic has argued that this should come after, not before, measures to secure EU borders and prevent migrants from coming to Europe.

But he added that "it was useless". "If we had been pretending for a year and half, what was the impetus to change that?", he said.

'Domestic issue'

Bartovic, along with others who have insight into how the government operates, pointed out that internal dynamics inside the Social-Democratic Party (CSSD) also played their part.

"It's clearly a domestic issue," said one contact.

Prime minister Sobotka, who was contested inside his party, is being pushed aside by two of his ministers, foreign affairs minister Lubomir Zaoralek and interior affairs minister Milan Chovanec.

On Wednesday evening, ahead of the next elections in October, the CSSD decided to take the party leadership from Sobotka and give it to Chovanec. And on Saturday, Zaoralek should be named campaign leader and candidate for prime minister.

The government is also faced with a public opinion that is mostly opposed to migration, and under pressure from billionaire Andrej Babis, who was until recently finance minister and who is expected to run a eurosceptic campaign.

The CSSD used to be divided over the relocation issue, but "now it is united," Bartovic noted.

"It is the start of the campaign. The government's calculation is that any fine will come after the election, and that it [the EU procedure] will not have any negative effect," he said.

On Wednesday, Zaoralek rejected the Commission's decision but called for dialogue.

"We cannot solve all the problems only by going to EU court," he said in a debate at the Prague European Summit conference.

He said that the EU should "start difficult political discussions" and "create a really common asylum procedure".

"We should be able to communicate and cooperate and build compromises," he added. "This seems to be lacking."

Same bag

Prague could now be in an awkward position towards the rest of the EU.

One source noted that by provoking the Commission last week, the Czech Republic was now put "in the same bag" as Poland and Hungary, two member states considered by the EU as a threat to the rule of law.

The three countries, with Slovakia, are part of the so-called Visegrad Four, a group that has often criticised EU policies and in which the Czechs were often considered as the more moderate.

Slovakia, along with Poland, has also taken the relocation scheme to the European Court of Justice, and has only relocated 16 people from Greece. But the Commission did not open a case against it on Tuesday, because Bratislava gave guarantees to the EU executive.

"The government should also have shown some good will, even if it would not have changed its behaviour," the source said.

"Many member states are pretending, but on the ground they do everything possible not to relocate," Bartovic also noted.

What the Czech government did "was not clever, was not nice,” he said.

Anti-EU rhetoric props up Czech election race

The recent decision to stop taking asylum seekers is the latest sign of growing euroscepticism ahead of elections in October, with billionaire Andrej Babis as favourite.

Lack of eligible candidates dogs EU relocation scheme

Member states could fail to meet their refugee quotas even if they wanted to, as strict eligibility rules mean there are few candidates left in Greece and Italy. Sweden is already wondering if it will meet its pledge.

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