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The European commission has launched a legal case against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take in refugees, intensifying a bitter feud within the bloc about how to deal with migration.
The Eurosceptic governments in Poland and Hungary have refused to take in anyone under a plan agreed by a majority of EU leaders in 2015 to relocate migrants from frontline states Italy and Greece to help ease their burden. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people but has since said it would not welcome more.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, the EU’s migration chief, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said: “I regret to see that despite our repeated calls to pledge to relocate, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have not yet taken the necessary action.
“For this reason, the commission has decided to launch infringement procedures against these three member states … I sincerely hope that these member states can still reconsider their position and contribute fairly.”
The legal action is likely to reinvigorate the debate over the independence of EU states from Brussels. It kickstarts months, or even years, of legal wrangling before a top EU court could potentially impose financial penalties.
Out of 160,000 refugees due to be taken under the scheme agreed in 2015, only 20,869 have been relocated. In theory, countries can be fined for every refugee in the quota they fail to accept.
The Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, nosediving in the polls and facing elections in November, claimed the commission was “blindly insisting on pushing ahead with dysfunctional quotas which decreased citizens’ trust in EU abilities and pushed back working and conceptual solutions to the migration crisis”.
He added: “Given the deteriorating security situation in Europe and the non-functioning of the quota system, the Czech government will not participate in it. We are ready to defend our position in the EU and the relevant judicial institutions.”
But speaking in Prague, the former Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema said the EU “cannot tolerate countries that do not respect the law that is based on our fundamental values and those values are to respect human rights”.
He added: “The only way to solve the crisis is to share the burden. It is not acceptable for Germany to take 1 million refugees and for some EU states to simply say no. In that case, sanctions are needed.”
The eastern states are firmly opposed to accepting any asylum seekers, and believe their populations will not accept large numbers of migrants, especially if imposed by the EU.
Speaking in Hungary’s parliament earlier on Monday, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said: “We will not give in to blackmail from Brussels and we reject the mandatory relocation quota.”
Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said: “We believe that the relocation methods attract more waves of immigration to Europe; they are ineffective.”
The Czech Republic had initially taken in 12 people from their assigned quota of 2,691, but said earlier in June it would take no more, citing security concerns. Sobotka argued on Monday that the biggest crisis facing the EU was terrorism.
Poland and Hungary have refused to take in a single person under a plan agreed in 2015 to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, which had been overwhelmed by an influx of people from the Middle East and Africa.
Although the number of refugees coming into Europe from Syria along the Balkan route has fallen, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya has risen significantly, placing great pressure on local Italian authorities.
Critics of the eastern European countries’ stance over refugees claim they are willing to accept the economic benefits of the EU, including access to the single market, but have shown a disregard for the humanitarian and political responsibilities.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania opposed agreeing to the relocation scheme for asylum seekers in 2015, but were outvoted. Although generally opposed, Poland eventually voted with the majority.