With the number of migrants and refugees knocking on Europe’s door relatively contained, there is now a sense of relief at the EU political level. This fact was demonstrated at the recent European Council of 20-21 October 2016, which was dominated by other relevant issues, including the trade deal with Canada, itself marked by the threatened veto from Wallonia, and a debate on relations with Russia. An extended debate on the EU’s strategy on migration also took place at the summit but no new decisions were taken. In their conclusions, EU leaders confirmed their new focus on the external and security dimensions of the migration challenge.

The common objective, which has mostly united varying camps of member states, is currently to safeguard the EU’s external borders and to reduce the flow of irregular migrants. This development has meant that some policy ideas of the Visegrad Group (V4) – consisting of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic now align more with the general EU approach. It also represents a quiet success of the current Slovak EU Presidency, which otherwise sought to avoid associating itself with the V4 in migration dossier. The concept of ‘flexible solidarity’ was accepted at the Bratislava summit on September 16th, validating the notion that there could be different forms of contributions from different countries on a voluntary basis, taking into account their experience and potential.

In his remarks following the European Council, President Donald Tusk acknowledged that EU leaders discussed the question of solidarity among member states with respect to the migration crisis. While concrete proposals will be considered only at the next summit in December, according to Tusk, EU leaders agreed that there would be no solidarity ‘à la carte’. The new ambition is to work on effective solidarity instead.

The V4 countries, which led the opposition to the mandatory relocation scheme of 160,000 refugees last year (with Slovakia and Hungary even filing a court case against it), will now need to show that they are contributing to the common EU response more than before. In this policy brief, we examine their capacity to deliver – if there is political will to do so.

EU buries migration dispute – for now

This was the headline of the EU Observer story on October 20th – before the EU summit even started. The shift in political focus away from (somewhat premature) moves towards a common EU migration and asylum policy driven by the EU Commission, reflects broader developments in the current environment in Europe:

  • A dramatic drop in the numbers of illegal crossings at sea (2960 to Greek islands and nearly 12 700 to Italy in September);
  • An overall political goal to portray unity among the EU-27 following the Brexit vote;
  • Practical limitations and the general non-implementation of the mandatory relocation scheme from September 2015 (even by those member states who vigorously supported it);
  • A pragmatic approach pursued by Germany and other major players to foster consensus building among the EU-27 on migration policy;
  • A tacit agreement to keep temporary border controls within Schengen in place, with the goal of lifting them over time, which will be accompanied by the reinforcement of external borders.

The October Council conclusions reveal that a significant amount of common ground has been found between the EU’s western and eastern members over the past few months. However, agreement about what exactly constitutes a meaningful and adequate contribution from a specific country might still prove thornier.

What are the V4 countries already contributing, albeit if it is in diverse or uneven ways? Are they prepared to also address other elements of the EU’s comprehensive strategy in addition to the protection of external borders? What are their ideas on the EU asylum system reform, which will be back on the table at the December Council?

‘Flexible solidarity’ from Visegrad: a mixed picture

When looking at the October Council conclusions, the provisions that can be implemented mostly revolve around border control and external crisis management measures. At least five points stand out, either thematically or geographically.

  1. EU leaders want to maintain control over the Eastern Mediterranean route, which requires continuous – and more thorough – implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, including the need to advance the visa liberalization legislation in early 2017. On this point, the four Visegrad countries do not pose a problem, as none have threatened to veto this part of the deal as other member states have. The other aspect of this provision is a rather vague formulation pointing to continued support for countries along the Balkan route. Macedonia and Serbia have been receiving a significant amount of practical assistance from Visegrad governments related to border protection and humanitarian aid targeted toward refugees.
  2. Expansion of the Frontex mandate and the swift entry into force of the new European Border and Coastal Guard on October 6th is another V4 strong point. In the case of the Slovak EU Presidency, it has also been underpinned by a solid national contribution – 25 Slovak policemen were deployed to the Bulgarian border, which will amount to more than 10% of the 200-member EU mission there once fully operational. Poland is concerned that the expansion of the mandate will create reasons for moving Frontex’s headquarters from Warsaw to the center of action – southern member states. But as long as Warsaw’s headquarters position is left untouched, the expansion of Frontex powers will receive support in Poland. The readiness to enhance joint border control also stems from the fact that Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are located directly at the EU’s extensive Eastern border. The instability in countries to the east of the EU could conceivably lead to a large number of people seeking to cross the EU border in search of protection. Frontex, meanwhile, is perceived to be a tool that can stabilize entry flows when needed. Furthermore, Frontex, with its increased reliance on technology-based processes – the visa system, Eurodac, and others – is a vehicle through which additional investment can be secured in this area.
  3. Greece needs to register some 50,000 refugees on its territory, but it is not receiving sufficient support from other EU member states, especially with regard to the number of asylum experts made available for its hotspots. In this area, the V4 countries are still underperforming, with the Czech Republic being the notable exception with its commitment of 10 EASO officers.
  4. The Central Mediterranean route to Italy is rapidly becoming a concern needing to be addressed. Even if the September number of nearly 12,700 people was a decline of 40% from the previous month, mostly due to inclement weather, the overall trend this year has remained in line with 2015. Most of the asylum seekers are from the African continent, with Nigeria and Eritrea accounting for the largest share. What’s even more distressing, the numbers of deaths have crept up as smugglers have taken a greater number of risks. As of October 26th, at least 3800 people have been reported dead or missing this year, making the death toll in 2016 the highest yet. With the exception of Poland, the V4 counties are landlocked, and thus do not have maritime capabilities to help with patrolling or rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.
  5. In order to reduce migration flows from the African continent and improve rates of return, so-called Partnership Frameworks are being negotiated with individual African countries of origin and transit. At the next EU summit in December, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will present a progress report focused on new arrivals and returns with respect to five selected African countries (Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal). This is where the political heavy lifting is taking place right now. Member states have been invited to cooperate closely on these development compacts, so that based on evaluation, the EU can decide whether or not to expand this approach to include other countries, both within and beyond Africa. This is another weak spot for the V4 countries: their historical ties, expertise, and experience with development assistance in Africa are generally lacking. They will most likely only provide a limited contribution to both the formulation and implementation phases for the development compacts with African countries. Nevertheless, they still may consider noticeably increasing their monetary contributions to the EU-Africa fund, which in the case of Poland was pledged at 1.1 million EUR.

In some areas, the V4 countries are prepared to contribute more (when adjusted for size and budgets of the countries) than many other EU member states. In terms of national contributions to the relevant EU agencies, they clearly over-perform for Frontex and under-perform for EASO. This is due to capacity constraints, not only political preferences. Slovakia, for instance, has only been able to provide three experts to EASO, on account of its very small domestic pool of experienced asylum officers with the necessary qualifications.  – without a higher number of refugees and asylum seekers at home, the V4 governments have little incentive to build up these miniscule domestic capacities.

The efforts of the V4 to express solidarity by contributing to measures to help countries most exposed to the migration crisis are also not always seen as credible. A more genuine process of selecting recipient countries of this assistance might be needed. When Poland sends border guards to Hungary instead of Greece or Italy, for example, the perception is that membership in the block of like-minded states trumps more genuine needs of assistance.

Much of the EU debate on solidarity (or the lack thereof) in respect to frontline states has been linked to the issue of internal border controls. If the migration stress on Italy and Greece continues, and if these frontline countries are not assisted by a functioning system of EU-wide relocations, Germany and other ‘destination countries’ will be reluctant to return to Schengen. And saving the Schengen remains the top V4 priority.

Common EU asylum system: lack of ideas and efforts in the V4

In their joint statement before the Bratislava summit in September, V4 Prime Ministers had very little to say on their structural approach to the migration crisis. Their national positions have also tended to vary from one another.

The Czech government adopted a complex migration strategy and other policies facilitating the integration of asylum seekers. Slovakia has offered over 500 scholarships to Syrian teenagers in refugee camps. Prague and Bratislava are also open to the EU relocation scheme, as long as it is on a voluntary bases. The Czech government made 50 places available and so far has relocated 12 refugees, while the Slovak government has pledged 100 places and so far has relocated only one family (of 3 people) of Syrian refugees from Greece. The previous xenophobic rhetoric of Slovak Prime Minister Fico against Muslims has not been followed in practice.

In contrast, Hungary held an anti-migration referendum on October 2nd against mandatory quotas on refugees and refuses to participate in the EU relocation scheme. The proposed five amendments to Hungary’s Constitution seek to place the national level of decision-making above the EU level and forbid any externally imposed resettlement of foreign citizens to Hungary.

As for Poland, the current conservative government overruled its predecessor’s commitment to the EU’s relocation scheme, citing security concerns following terrorist attacks in Belgium and France. Warsaw declared that it will be more beneficial for everyone if it focuses on taking in Ukrainians from Eastern regions (who do not necessarily acquire protection status but may be granted other types of residence permits) as they have better prospects to integrate more smoothly into the homogenous Polish society due to their cultural proximity. The development of a comprehensive strategy document on integration policy is expected to be quietly suspended.

Meanwhile, many tensions and differences among the EU-27 over internal aspects of EU migration policy are still brewing.  Ministers of Interior have been considering the May 2016 proposals by the EU Commission to reform the Dublin system. The Dublin Regulation is the key pillar of an EU asylum policy that imposes the requirement that migrants and refugees be registered in the first EU country of arrival. Because national positions are still very much apart, even among Western European countries, the current Slovak EU Presidency has not prioritized work on developing a new framework. Yet at the upcoming December summit, this discussion will be on the agenda.

Does it mean that difficult discussions on migration and the resolution of deep divisions among the EU-27 on migration have been simply postponed to next year? Malta, which holds the next EU Council Presidency in the first half of 2017, wants to put Dublin and reform of the common asylum system at the top of its priorities on migration. With a series of upcoming elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands, it could still take more than a year to reach a deal.

Could the V4 simply wait it out?

Not really. Ultimately, even if external borders are reinforced, migration pressures on Europe are set to increase. Central Europeans tend to overlook the fact that mass migration into Europe is part of a global phenomenon. Some 60 million people have been displaced or have fled their homes and almost 20 million of these refugees are displaced in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood or not far from it. As long as war in Syria and internal strife and extreme poverty in a number of African countries continue, refugees and migrants will continue to come to Europe seeking protection and opportunity.

EU leaders will be forced to develop a supranational approach to migration, because it affects member states disproportionately. Common standards on solidarity and responsibility will apply not only to Germany, but also its allies. Member states will increasingly hold one another to account. Solidarity among member states will be increasingly seen as a two-way street. Non-cooperation will be seen as an opt-out from common policies and tied to reciprocity on other issues that are of vital interests to Central Europeans. This might already be reflected in the negotiation of the next financial framework among other decisions. The failure to show solidarity on the migration crisis would render it difficult for V4 countries to defend higher expenditures on regional policy, beneficial for the V4, as the money will be needed elsewhere.

‘Flexible solidarity’ on addressing the migration crisis, promoted by Central Europeans, could also result in increased flexibility on the part of Western European countries on the free movement of people and workers within the EU’s single market. That, in fact, does not sound like a very good deal.