European Court of Justice confirmed the legality of the EU’s refugee relocation scheme
On Wednesday (6 September) the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that EU’s migration quota scheme was legal in response to a complaint filed by Hungary and Slovakia. The verdict upholds the EU’s right to oblige Member States to take in asylum seekers. Faced with migration crisis of 2015, the Council of the EU demanded Member States to help Italy and Greece – which bore the brunt of the crisis. The relocation scheme aimed to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy across the bloc, based on quotas established by the EU Commission, to address the emergency situation. But less than 28,000 people have been relocated as of 1 September 2017.
Both countries rejected Wednesday’s ruling and pledged not to change their opposition to taking in asylum seekers. The Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said that “We will continue to work on having solidarity expressed in different ways other than forcing [on us] migrants from other countries that don’t want to be here anyway.” Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, called the court decision “outrageous and irresponsible”. He added that Budapest will take all legal action possible to prevent relocating people into Hungary “against the will of the Hungarian people”. Hungary will hold general elections next spring, and harsh rhetoric against Brussels and migration issues are expected during the campaign.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are facing infringement procedures over their failure to comply with the refugee relocation scheme. Poland and Hungary have not accepted any relocated asylum seekers, while the Czech Republic has taken in 12. However, Slovakia has agreed to accept asylum seekers and therefore was able to avoid infringement proceedings.
The EU’s Migration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos “praised the court decision, urging Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to immediately begin showing “solidarity” with Greece and Italy, and drop their refusal to accept relocated migrants”. Referring to a recent request by Hungary to the EU Commission, citing European solidarity, to finance half of the cost of its border fence, which was erected to prevent migrants from entering the country, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to the Hungarian Prime Minister that “solidarity is not a-la-carte dish that can be chose for.
While Wednesday’s ruling is not expected to have direct consequences on Hungary’s and Slovakia’s policies, it could increase pressure on eastern and central European Member States to take in people from Greece and Italy. But it is still unclear how Brussels will force those states to take in refugees and asylum seekers.
Fallout from third round of Brexit negotiations
The third round of Brexit talks concluded last week in Brussels with both the EU and UK expressing frustration at the pace of the negotiations. Without an agreement over the size of the UK’s “divorce bill”, which the EU has put at €100 billion, the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said it would be hard to move negotiations on to post-Brexit relations.
Speaking at the British Parliament on Sunday (3 Sep), the UK’s Brexit minister David Davis insisted that Britain would not be forced into accepting unfavourable terms and will go through line by line the “enormous bill” demanded by the EU because the government had a “duty to our taxpayers”. Davis also asserted that failure to reach a Brexit deal would be worse for the economies of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark than it would be for Britain (despite the commonly held view that the UK would be hit hardest in a no-deal scenario as trade rolls back on the much less favourable WTO terms).
Notwithstanding the defiant rhetoric, the UK seems to be no less concerned with the slow pace of the talks and is looking to intensify negotiations if possible. Currently Brexit negotiations take place for a week every month. This week, Theresa May’s spokeswoman told journalists that the UK prefers a rolling series of meetings. She also confirmed that the UK would not come up with a figure for the Brexit bill until wider talks began. Her statement highlights the Brexit dilemma once again: while the UK insists that the divorce bill is “inextricably linked” to future relations, Brussels has repeatedly (and from the onset) claimed that Britain’s orderly withdrawal takes precedence over post-Brexit issues.
Recently Barnier was quoted as saying he saw the Brexit process as an opportunity to “teach” the British people and others what leaving the single market means. When a spokesman for British Prime Minister responded to his remarks, Barnier had to clarify that what he said really was that Brexit “was an occasion of great explanation for everyone in the EU” about the benefits of staying in the single market. Either way, Bariner is likely to relentlessly protect European interests as there could be a high personal stake for Barnier – the prospect of him succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president hinges on the outcome of Brexit negotiations. Barnier is a two-time European commissioner and made an unsuccessful bid for Commission presidency in 2014. Lacking prime ministerial experience, his political dream may still come true if he prevails in the Breixt negotiations.
This week the British government sent a letter to chiefs of many firms on the FTSE 100 stock exchange, praising the government’s negotiations and highlighting its commitment to secure a transition period after Brexit. The recipients were asked to publicly back Theresa May’s Brexit strategy by signing a letter which says “We believe this is a good time for employers to work with Government and Parliament to make a success of Brexit and secure a bright future for our country.” But it provoked anger at some major firms, with one unnamed executive saying: “There is no way we could sign this given the current state of chaos surrounding the [Brexit] talks.”
Further to the disappointment of the business community (and the EU), a leaked government document published by the Guardian on Tuesday (5 Sep) proposed to end the free movement of labour immediately after Brexit and to introduce measures to drive down the number of lower-skilled EU migrants. The paper also suggests ending the right to settle in the UK for most EU citizens and restricting their rights to bring over family members. (Recently released UK government figures showed that net migration fell by almost 25 percent after the Brexit vote, mainly due to an exodus of Eastern Europeans.)
On the same day (5 Sep), Britain rejected a call by the Irish foreign minister for Dublin to be given a role in the running of Northern Ireland, saying it would “never countenance” joint authority. Irish Minister Simon Coveney made such comments for two reasons. First, the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence provides for a consultative role for the Irish government in the running of the British region. Second reason is that the failure since January of the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the British unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to reach agreement on re-establishing the devolved administration in Northern Ireland increases the possibility of direct British rule over the province. In an apparent rebuff to Coveney’s comments, a British statement said that “In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide the certainty over delivery of public services and good governance in Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom”.
Merkel pledges to push for a tough line on Turkey
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a U-turn on her Turkey policy during a live pre-election TV debate on Sunday (3 September). Her main opponent, former European Parliament President Martin Schulz had earlier said he would end the Turkey accession negotiations if he was elected Chancellor. To the surprise of the audience, Merkel responded that she would discuss with other EU leaders to “see if we can reach a joint position” to end Turkey’s EU accession talks. However, she also cautioned that a deeper rift between Germany and Turkey could put in danger the 12 German nationals currently imprisoned on political charges in Turkey.
Merkel further underlined her new, tough line on Turkey when she addressed the German Bundestag in the last plenary session on 5 Sep (Tue) before Germany’s general election (24 September). She said that during the next meeting of the European Council (19-20 October) she will push the other EU leaders to reconsider their relationship with Turkey. But she also reminded that it is important for the EU to be united on this issue and not to “fight over the question of our future dealing with Turkey in front of Erdoğan’s eyes”, since the EU’s relations with Turkey are of a “strategic nature”.
While Merkel seemed to have toughen her stance towards Turkey, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini was more reserved and said that Turkey continues to be an important regional partner and that accession talks should continue despite the tensions. The EU relies heavily on Turkey due to the EU-Turkey refugee deal which dramatically reduced the flow of migrants into Greece/the EU.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not wait long to criticise Merkel and Schulz for discussing an end to EU accession talks for his country. He insisted that it was still a top priority for his government to become a full EU member. He also again urged Turks living in Germany not to support parties during the general elections which are “hostile to Turkey”.
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