By Jennifer Rankin
The European Union’s top court has dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, dealing a blow to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his allies in central Europe over the bitterly contested policy of refugee quotas.
In an important victory for the EU, judges threw out a challenge against its mandatory relocation scheme, which aims to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers around the bloc.
The victory has sharpened tensions between the EU and Hungary’s combative PM, who has made opposition to EU asylum policy a core theme of his “Stop Brussels” campaign. It will also raise tensions with Poland, which lent its support to the failed legal campaign.
Budapest condemned the court ruling as “appalling and irresponsible”. The foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, said: “This decision jeopardises the security and future of all of Europe. Politics has raped European law and values.”
The European court of justice (ECJ) said it had dismissed “in their entirety the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary”, vindicating the EU decision-making process that created a scheme to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states.
The number was later amended when 54,000 “unused places” were allocated to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey in Europe. Based on the original 120,000 figure, fewer than a quarter of places have been filled. With the relocation scheme due to expire later this month, the stage is set for bruising arguments over permanent refugee quotas.
EU leaders agreed the emergency plan in September 2015, at the height of the migration crisis, as thousands of people arrived daily on Europe’s shores, many of whom were refugees from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.
Along with Hungary and Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic also voted against the scheme. Poland belatedly threw its weight behind the legal case after the conservative Law and Justice party came to power in late 2015.
European leaders turned to an untested provision of the EU treaty to force through the decision in an attempt to get to grips with unprecedented numbers of people arriving in the EU.
ECJ judges said the European council had acted lawfully. EU institutions were on firm legal ground when they adopted measures to respond to “an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of displaced persons”, the court said. The ECJ also concluded that the legality of the decision was not affected by retrospective conclusions about the policy’s effectiveness.
In a robust defence of the EU treaties, the court said: “The small number of relocations so far carried out under the contested decision can be explained by a series of factors … including, in particular, the lack of cooperation on the part of certain member states.”
Data released on Wednesday shows that 27,695 refugees have been relocated under the scheme, roughly two-thirds from Greece and a third from Italy. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, said there was “misunderstanding” about the numbers and fewer people than anticipated were eligible for help.
He said 2,800 people in Greece were awaiting relocation and another 2,000 were expected to become eligible. According to official data, in Italy 7,200 eligible asylum seekers have arrived since the start of the year but only 4,000 have been registered, as authorities struggle to cope with arrivals.
Hungary and Poland have not relocated a single person and the Czech Republic has not made any offers for more than a year. All three countries risk being taken to court by the commission. Avramopoulos said the commission was ready to consider that last step. “The door is still open and we should convince all member states to fulfil their commitments, but we should be clear that member states have to show solidarity now.”
The court decision came as the EU executive curtly dismissed Orbán’s request for EU funds to help build a border fence. In a letter from the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, Orbán is chastised for attempting to pick and choose EU policies. “Solidarity is not an à-la-carte dish,” states the letter, first obtained by Politico.
Juncker lists the financial support Hungary has received to manage migrant flows, and the €4m Budapest lost out on by refusing to take part in the refugee relocation scheme. “Solidarity is a two-way street. There are times in which member states may expect to receive support, and times in which they, in turn, should stand ready to contribute,” he writes.
The ECJ ruling was greeted with relief in Brussels. Manfred Weber, the head of the European parliament’s largest centre-right group, tweeted: "#ECJ confirms our view on the migration scheme. We expect all EU countries to respect and implement the ruling. @EPPGroup 1/3"
There was a predictable reaction from anti-EU parties. The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: “What a surprise – EU court undermines national sovereignty once again. It should be a decision of nation states who it allows inside its borders.”
The EU has taken in more than 1.7 million people from the Middle East and Africa since 2014. However, after a mass influx in 2015, the number of arrivals has fallen steadily after actions last year that all but closed the route from Turkey to Greece and from Greece to the Balkans and northern Europe. The EU has also increased support for Libya to curb arrivals in Italy.
The ruling has no impact on the UK, which has an opt-out from this area of EU law.
Published on The Guardian on September 6, 2017.