Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Commissioner and Czech minister argue over migration

  • Zaoralek (r) told Timmermans (l) that the EU should focus on "economic and social convergence among EU countries rather than attempts to distribute migrants by forced quotas". (Photo: Prague European Summit)

Almost two years into the migration crisis, the European Commission and countries like the Czech Republic are still at loggerheads over how the EU should react and shape its future.

Sharp divergences were on display on Thursday (15 June) in a debate at the Prague European Summit between EU commission vice president Frans Timmermans and Czech foreign affairs minister Lubomir Zaoralek.

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The discussion was taking place two days after the EU executive opened an infringement procedure against the Czech Republic, for having relocated only 12 asylum-seekers as part of the relocation scheme that was launched in the autumn 2015.

It was all the more interesting, as Zaoralek was chosen the night before as his party's candidate for prime minister in the upcoming Czech elections in October.

Zaoralek said that the EU should focus on "economic and social convergence among EU countries, rather than attempts to distribute migrants with forced quotas".

He said that differences in economic development in the EU explained why "the burden of migrants is unevenly distributed" and "why it is so difficult to achieve distribution of migrants".

In Eastern EU countries, he pointed out that "the most vulnerable inhabitants are often poorer than the incoming migrants themselves."

In response, Timmermans called that approach "highly unfair".

He noted that the EU needs to find "a sustainable solution supported by all member states for crisis situations", but insisted on "collective responsibility".

"It cannot be the case that if there is a crisis situation with many refugees and migrants coming to Europe, that just because they arrive in one or two member states, the responsibility to deal with that relies only on one or two member states," he said.

He insisted that the commission's decision to open a case on relocation was "only fair" and that the EU executive "had no other option" because "sadly" no political solution could be found.

He said he "waited as long as [he] could" but that there was no "time left".

Timmermans and Zaoralek shared the same view that Eastern and Western, as well as Northern and Southern Europeans, have too may different narratives and sometimes prejudices about each other.

But the commissioner and the minister expressed opposite views on Europe, as well as on social-democracy, to which they both belong.

No Ukrainian suicide bomber

Zaoralek said that "people who are coming have no real interest in being integrated" and want to live with their "partners from similar cultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds".

He pointed out that the Czech Republic received 30,000 migrants in 2016, mainly from Eastern countries. He added that many came from war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but at the time "nobody was interested in the religious background".

He said that people in Central and Eastern European countries don't want to "repeat the mistake of the Western countries".

He took the example of "suburbs full of thousands and thousand of people living in imperfect living conditions", which are "very risky, not only during the night but also during the day".

He added that "there are no suicide bombers among Ukrainians or Vietnamese," both of which are long-established communities in the country.

"I find very difficult to take that argument," Timmermans replied, noting that terrorists in Europe were born there and that people coming to the EU are fleeing terrorists in Syria.

"Let's have an open debate about the facts and about the realities of the refugees as well," he said. "They are fellow human beings who, I think, deserve to seek refuge when they flee the barbarism that the jihadists are inflicting upon them."

'Sleeping beauty moment'

Amid these disagreements, Timmermans, who is the commissioner in charge of the rule of law and fundamental rights in the EU, stopped short of calling on Czech people to vote against Zaoralek in the October elections.

He noted that in the UK last week, "the younger generation had its sleeping beauty moment."

"They woke up to use the system because they wanted to change the system," he said, about the vote that stripped the British Conservative Party of its majority in the country's 8 June election.

He said that young Europeans were "post-ideological but very idealistic" and were "taking upon the future now".

Referring to differences over migration policies and the need to solve the problem "together," he went on to say that he counted on young people "to do the same in other elections and to become more active in defending our common European project".

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