Central Europe says ‘no’ to the Refugees
Who is rejecting quotas and why?
Matteo Tacconi 11 September 2015

The system outlined by Juncker, adapted to the growing influx of refugees and thus aligning the numbers of those to be distributed in the 28 member countries upwards, compared to the maximum of 40,000 envisaged in May, is aimed at easing the pressure that Italy, Greece and Hungary, the three great gateways to Europe, are experiencing on their borders. Basically, the outcome is the principle of inter-community solidarity and sustainability applied to those who are fleeing countries considered dangerous, starting with Syria.

However, in the heart of Europe, not everyone agrees with this. Central Europe is rejecting this mechanism and it is for this reason that it is, for the moment, exposed to passionate criticism.

The Various Gradations of ‘no’

A communique was issued on Friday from the summit of the Visegrad Group, the dialogue and cooperation forum made up of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The prime ministers of these countries stated that “any proposal that would lead to the introduction of compulsory and permanent quotas as a solidarity measure would be unacceptable.”

Divided by different approaches on the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia (Warsaw backs Kiev and sanctions, Hungary and Slovakia want to resume trade with Moscow, Prague is dithering), the central European quartet has found unity as far as the refugee issue is concerned.

However, this ‘no’ assumes different gradations. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is closing the border with Serbia, the last leg of the Balkan route, has emphasized the concept of land, people and blood. Not only does he reject quotas, but also the arrival of refugees and of what, in his opinion, is a risky variable; the cultural contamination between Europeans and refugees. In a recent speech, quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he explained that Hungary has no choice, other than to secure its borders and defend itself and the rest of Europe from cultural promiscuity, protecting the Christian roots of the continent. All of this because, as Orban states, the majority of the refugees are Muslim.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, unlike Hungary, do not reject the idea of welcoming refugees, but want to absorb a smaller number than that assigned to them by Brussels. Until very recently Warsaw let it be known that it could welcome, at most, 2,000 people, compared to the 10,000 expected of it. After Juncker’s speech, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz did, however, promise greater commitment. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have said they are inclined to take a certain number of refugees.

In any event, all three governments share an attitude with Hungary regards to the Islamic bogeyman. They are open to receiving only Christian refugees. Poland has already welcomed a number of them through the Overseas Fundacja Foundation.

Once Upon a Time there was Solidarnosc

The Visegrad Group was founded immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which was to split in 1993, felt the need to coordinate, talk and meet, well-aware that the transition would be long and filled with difficult challenges for all of them. At the core of the foundation of the Visegrad Group, which achieved such good results that the western Balkan nations want to copy their best features, there was the value of solidarity. This was a key word during that incredible period that saw in the creation in Poland of Lech Walesa’s trade union Solidarnosc – solidarity –  the starting point of the national and regional process of liberation from Soviet domination.

After 1989 the concept of solidarity did not cease. Central Europe’s leadership, the protagonists in the fight against Communism, truly believed that unity in diversity, embedded in flexible structures, capable of providing rhythm and constancy to dialogue, would have made all the difference.

Faced with the position assumed by Central Europe concerning the refugee issue, newspapers around the world, moving back and forth between remembrance and rhetoric, are wondering for what reasons this principle is falling to pieces.

Elections and Peacefulness

There are many factors to take into consideration, the short-term ones include elections. Poland and Slovakia will shortly be facing parliamentary elections, which will be held on October 25th and in March 2016 respectively. Acceptance, integration and immigration are not subjects that will lead to victory or defeat (Warsaw is more concerned with economic issues and the Ukrainian situation), but they have the power to shift votes.

In the traditional exclusively right-wing challenge that has characterized Poland for a number of elections, the Right and Justice Party (PiS), a paternalistic nationalist party that tends to be linked to the Catholic Church, which in Poland is diffident of the innovations brought to the Vatican by Pope Francis, is expected to return to power after two turns in opposition. Its position is that Poland cannot take upon itself the task of receiving refugees. It would not be socially, economically and culturally sustainable.

It is known that PiS expresses a certain degree of conflict towards Germany and the EU, which it considers an obstacle to the protection of Poland’s national interests. It is no coincidence that the Civic Platform (PO), the centrist party that has been in power since 2007, has developed excellent relations with Berlin and its well-known leader, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is now president of the European Council. Ewa Kopacz, who took over as prime minister and is clearly behind in the polls, is therefore trying to distance herself from the pro-German and pro-European label, emphasizing instead the protection of Polish interests. It follows that she would reject the quota idea put forward by Berlin and demand to only accept Christian refugees. It is possible that this position would, in any case, be called for beyond mere electoral considerations.

Warsaw has a partial excuse. Over the past two years tens of thousands of Ukrainians have come to Poland. Many fled from the war-torn Donbass region, but many others have come to Poland in search of work, given that the former Soviet republic is in a state of economic collapse. The influx of Ukrainians has not been easy to manage and has involved considerable financial and administrative efforts.

Elections in Slovakia will take place in March. SMER, the party of current Prime Minister Robert Fico, is considered to represent a populist way of being left wing and is expected to remain the strongest party in the country. The party is however feeling pressure from the right, in spite of it being fragmented. Since the economy is doing well, Fico choice has been redistribution as well as trying to keep living standards unchanged and he recently enacted a 200 million euro welfare spending package. Slovakia is a Catholic country and not used to immigration and has thus rejected the refugees.

There are no elections scheduled this year in the Czech Republic, but there will be some Senate elections in 2016, a general election in 2017 and presidential elections in 2018. The scenario is not dissimilar to Slovakia’s. The economy, after a period of stagnation, if not recession, has returned to grow, rising by 4.4% in the first quarter posting the best results in Europe. The two powerful men in the left-right coalition in Prague, Social-Democratic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babis, the richest man in the country, are both taking credit for the recovery. And since the economy is moving, it would not do to upset the status quo and welcome ‘different’ people, and not just because this would clash with the people’s Christian beliefs. The Czech Republic is in fact a country in which atheism has a significant tradition.

Unaccustomed to Diversity

What is emerging at the moment, is a tendency to label central Europe as a continental workshop of racism, xenophobia and neo-Nazism. That is not to say that these tendencies are not present. But this is probably not the best explanation for the refusal to accept quotas. Central Europe, seen from this point of view, is no exception. Racism is also widespread on the other side of the European Union; the Northern League (Lega Nord), the National Front (Front National) in France, Pegida in Germany, are just a few examples of parties and movements able to capture many more votes than similar forces in central Europe, which, on the western side of the EU have been crying out about the migrant invasions and the dangers of Islamisation as well as building walls.

If anything, the problem lies with people no longer accustomed to diversity. These countries are nationally homogeneous. This is the result of a dramatic shift of populations and borders following the Second World War. The most significant example is Poland. The Jews vanished, Ukrainians and Lithuanians suddenly found themselves inside the USSR, Germans, as happened in the rest of central Europe, were expelled on the basis of a legally abhorrent principle of collective guilt, established at the beginning of the Communist period and, as time went on, often manipulated in order to satisfy consensus in national questions. This, without mentioning that Communism locked up these people within their own respective countries in spite of publicly espousing internationalism.

After 1989 central Europe did not attract immigrants. The migratory balance, almost everywhere with the exception of the Czech Republic, is still negative. It goes without saying that the lack of the experience of cultural promiscuity is no justification. But perhaps it influences the attitudes of both citizens and governments who profit politically from the issue.

Deducting Solidarity

Economic and political transitions in central Europe have had serious social impact. These countries have been asked to make immense sacrifices. The results have been encouraging in many ways. Poland today is experiencing a sort of golden age at an economic level, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are a stable reality, Hungary, perhaps less so, but has much to offer.

In any case, there are areas of poverty and economic backwardness in all these countries. Solidarity, seen from Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Bratislava, is also a duty for those who have more (western Europe), to support and aid those who have less (central Europe). This attitude has a degree of legitimacy and it would be well not to forget that the process of convergence between “old” and “new” Europe is slowly but consistently evening out the differences.

The fact, however, is that this vision of solidarity verges at times on victimhood. This was seen in the case of Greece, when central European and Baltic states claimed their right not to loosen their purse strings, especially given the reforms they had to undergo in the past. “We were asked to make sacrifices and to bring public expenditure maniacally under control, but why on earth should we now show solidarity with Greece which instead fiddled the books?” This, in a nutshell, is the attitude that has taken root in the eastern quadrant. The same thing is happening with the refugees. The right to solidarity owed to those fleeing wars is perceived as a sort of subtraction of their own still unextinguished need for solidarity. Even if one were to admit this were true, the test of democratic maturity up for offer is not one of the best.

It is true these days, however, seen from below, that there are glimmers of solidarity that help to clear the air of easy generalizations. Many citizens of Budapest have shown great generosity, helping migrants crowding Keleti railway station. A “plea for humanity” petition in Slovakia has gathered 10,000 signatures, demanding that the government assume a less obtuse attitude as far as refugees are concerned. This is no comfort, but, at the end of the day, this too is news.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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