When the European migrant crisis began in 2015, Europe’s leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were quick to announce that Europe would welcome the world’s weary and needy, no questions asked. It would not slam its doors on people fleeing civil war, persecution, and poverty. But as is so often the case in the European Union, what the elites in Brussels had to say had little to do with how many of its member states felt, especially those newest and smallest members in the east.
So when the EU announced in 2016 that it was implementing a migrant quota program to help ease the burden being carried by Greece and Italy, which were bearing the brunt of the migrant crisis, it provoked some resistance. Countries like Hungary and Slovakia began reinforcing their borders and openly defied the EU’s demand that they comply with the quota. This began a long legal process in the EU’s court system that finally came to an end on Wednesday. The European Union’s high court decided, not surprisingly, that Hungary and Slovakia and all other EU countries must accept their assigned number of migrants, by force if necessary.
Hungary’s foreign affairs minister responded to the ruling, calling it “outrageous and irresponsible.” He also said “the real battle is only just beginning.” Poland’s prime minister said that it “absolutely does not change the stance of the Polish government with respect to immigration policy,” standing firm in its position of not taking in asylum seekers.
The EU could fine Poland and Hungary or any other country that disobeys its edicts. But it could also take away a member country’s right to vote in the EU, a sanction that so far has never been used. It would require a unanimous vote for such a sanction to be executed, something that’s increasingly unlikely as eastern EU countries begin to band together against the more powerful and influential western powers like Germany and France.
No Migration Without Representation
The migrant quota program is set to end later this month, giving migrants only about two more weeks to apply for relocation. So, why the court battle over a program that’s about to expire anyway? Because the fight isn’t just about xenophobia, racism, or bigotry, as the EU and many in the media would have you believe, although there’s probably a good dose of that. It’s ultimately a question of national sovereignty. Hungarians are fed up with having decisions about their border and country made in Brussels by officials whom they’ve had no hand in electing.
The proof’s in the pudding. Last October, Hungary held a referendum on the EU migrant quota. Although it failed to reach the 50 percent voter turnout threshold by a few percentage points, of those Hungarians who did vote, 98 percent said they did not want to accept migrants or refugees.
The migrant quota program isn’t the only point of contention between the EU and its member states—far from it. Earlier this year the EU initiated legal action against Poland after President Andrzej Duda approved a law to reform the country’s judicial branch. Some worried that the law would harm the independence of the Polish courts (although the president vetoed the two more extreme measures parliament had put on his desk). But tension with the EU began earlier than that, in 2015, when the right-leaning Law and Justice Party won in national elections.
One proposed solution to this tension that some core EU members like France support is to have a multi-tiered membership system. But Poland’s president has spoken out against such a plan, telling an economic forum earlier this month that this would create an unfair class system, making some bloc members second-class citizens. Instead, he thinks that it should be a union of “free” and equal nations.
We Don’t Want to Sell Our Sovereignty for Pottage
So to what extent does Brussels have a say in how EU bloc members choose to run themselves and what kind of political party they put in power? If Poles are unhappy with proposed judicial reforms, it’s up to them to go to the streets in protest, which is exactly what they did. Or they can vote a different party into power. It’s not for the EU to micromanage domestic reforms within member states.
The European Union is a federation of countries that was conceived as a way for Europe to cooperate in promoting economic prosperity and to decrease the chances of the continent going to war again. It was also meant as a way to push back against the encroaching Soviet Union after World War II.
As the decades have passed, however, the EU has expanded its purview and increasingly looked to rule Europe as though it were one country. Many member states are sick of it. That’s partly what drove the surprise Brexit vote last summer. Most European countries do not wish to cede their national sovereignty to a governing body in Brussels that isn’t necessarily looking out for the good of each individual country and doesn’t seem to particularly care if a given country doesn’t agree with EU policies.
Regardless of one’s opinions about the specific issue at hand, whether it’s the migrant quotas or Poland’s courts, the reality is that the EU is not a sustainable organization in its present form. What happens if countries like Poland and Hungary continue to refuse taking in migrants? How far will the EU go to maintain its authority?
The EU may have won its court battle this week against Hungary, but it won’t mean much if countries like Hungary decide in the end that the entire project is illegitimate.
A version of this article appeared as the lead essay in our foreign policy email newsletter, INBOUND. Subscribe here.