The Czech, Hungarian, and Slovak governments have opposed the European Commission’s plans to redistribute refugees throughout the EU, causing a major rift inside the union. Poland, previously also against the proposals, has reluctantly changed its mind and will now accept its share of refugees.
Carnegie Europe asked experts from each of these four Central European countries, known as the Visegrád Group, to explain their government’s stance toward the refugee crisis.
The official position of the Czech government is that a quota system to redistribute refugees within the EU will not work because the Czech Republic is not a country in which refugees would like to stay so they will leave for Germany. As consequence, Germany would then seal its border with the Czech Republic anyway.
There is also a supporting argument that the quota system as a permanent mechanism that would allow the European Commission to distribute refugees according to certain economic indicators, would be breach of national sovereignty.
The problem for Czech politicians is their inability to explain these arguments to their partners in Europe. To a big extent, this is caused by politicians’ lack of knowledge about how EU politics work and their poor language skills. (This has become an issue. During a meeting of EU interior ministers on September 22, Milan Chovanec, the Czech interior minister, was sitting alone when the others chatted because he is not able to speak any language but Czech.) Furthermore, the Czech government hasn’t put on the table any alternative plan for dealing with the refugees.
On this topic, there is unique unity among the relevant political parties in Prague. Nobody wants to allow foreigners in, and the issue is starting to become a kind of political game: whichever party does the most to refuse the refugees will win the country’s next parliamentary election, due in 2017.
There is also a general feeling in Czech society that citizens should fear anything connected to Islam. That sentiment is driven by populist politicians, led by President Miloš Zeman.
Martin Ehl is a journalist for Hospodářské noviny, a Czech daily.
The refugee crisis has presented Hungary with a level of complexity and unfamiliarity that would have been hard for many governments to handle smoothly.
If there had been goodwill and professionalism on the part of the Hungarian authorities, a significant amount of blundering could have been quite easily forgiven. In that case, correctives could also have been found more easily. However, from the outset, the Hungarian government chose to tackle the issue in a blatantly insensitive, Machiavellian manner. Put simply, it wanted to reap immediate political benefits for itself, playing on provincial and xenophobic instincts that many Hungarian citizens—and, no doubt, many other Europeans, too—harbor. Predictably, this has led to the escalation, rather than the mitigation, of the crisis.
There can be no denying the fact that the Hungarian government was under an obligation to deal with the influx of migrants in conformity with the relevant EU regulations. However, Budapest made very little (if any) effort to facilitate this process. It has done a great deal to turn the images of crowds of indigent and aggressive foreigners swarming the country’s public spaces—pictures already conjured up in the government’s propaganda before the real outbreak of the crisis—into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The crisis has also brought to surface another Hungary: that of civic organizations with activists and volunteers. Contrary to representations by government spokespersons and government-friendly media, these are not starry-eyed liberal idealists who are simply trying to soothe their consciences while blind to the possible risks and threats posed by the migration phenomenon. They are individuals motivated by compassion and solidarity who regularly participate in other forms of humanitarian help and who have prevented the refugee crisis from becoming a humanitarian catastrophe.
At the same time, the Hungarian government’s strategy has so far worked. The majority of its targets—sympathizers lost to the Far Right—seem to have been reconquered, and after a decline in the fall and winter of 2014–2015, the popularity of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party has climbed back to where it had been before.
László Kontler is a professor of history and pro-rector at the Central European University in Budapest.
Jarosław Kuisz and Karolina Wigura
The position of the Polish government toward the refugees has been very unclear and hesitant in the past few weeks, because it has been determined mostly by the ad hoc political dispute unfolding in the run-up to the country’s October 25 parliamentary elections.
For the Polish prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the conservative Law and Justice party, the biggest opposition group, the refugee crisis has turned out to be a gift from heaven. As Polish society is so homogeneous and knows almost nothing about multiculturalism, the refugee question could be used for any political purpose, especially ahead of the elections.
The Polish government first declared a policy of resistance to the proposals of some Western European countries to redistribute refugees within the EU. With this message, Kopacz went to Prague on September 4 for a meeting with her Central European counterparts convened by Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister.
Soon, however, the solidarity of the Visegrád Group began to fall apart, whereas the determination of most Western European countries on the refugee issue proved rather unshakable. As a result, the Polish government agreed to accept not only the 5,082 refugees assigned to Poland at a meeting of EU interior ministers on September 22 but also up to 2,500 more. One of the Polish ministers admitted honestly afterward, “Poland would anyway have been outvoted.”
Last but not least, the recent zigzags of the Polish government are a consequence of the problems of the generation of politicians who have been in power since 1989. Not only the refugee crisis but also revelations of secret U.S. Central Intelligence Agency prisons in Poland show that cynical pragmatism too often replaces solidarity and human rights, values that led Poland to its democratic breakthrough in 1989. Let’s hope the coming elections will change this a bit.
Jarosław Kuisz is the editor in chief of the Polish online weekly newspaper Kultura Liberalna. Karolina Wigura is the head of the political section of Kultura Liberalna.
The reasons for the Slovak government’s stance toward the refugee crisis are mostly political. In the context of Slovakia’s upcoming parliamentary election, due by March 2016, and of significantly radicalized Slovak public opinion, the ruling center-left Smer-SD party seems to consider any condemnation of xenophobia or Islamophobia politically risky, as it could be perceived as a de facto concession to the EU’s common migration policy.
In June 2015, 6,000 people took to the streets of Bratislava for a rally against national quotas for migrants. In a country where discontent seldom takes the form of street protest, this is of some significance. Indeed, refugees have become the most debated topic and one of the major worries for the Slovak population. And no wonder. Economically underprivileged people living in the southern and eastern regions of Slovakia, who already feel abandoned by the central government, perceive refugees as an economic and security threat.
There are voices that oppose the government’s line. After 71 refugees were found dead in a truck close to the Slovak-Austrian border in August, several public personalities including Slovak President Andrej Kiska launched an initiative called Plea for Humanity, urging the government to draft an action plan for the crisis.
But it now seems clear that the Slovak government is using its populist and simplistic rhetoric, which consists of labeling the refugees at times as potential terrorists, at times as economic migrants, to manipulate public opinion.
Instead of presenting the quota system as a temporary solution, which would certainly lead to growing support for nationalists and radicals, Bratislava uses the momentum created by this issue to flex its muscles in Brussels and thus build its political capital.
In the meantime, issues like corruption scandals, economic discontent, and public frustration with the political establishment, which made front-page news only weeks ago, are slowly sinking into oblivion.
Andrea Bilá is a project manager for the fight against discrimination, racism, and xenophobia at the Open Society Foundation in Bratislava.