The EU will struggle to respond to anti-migrant and anti-EU sentiments in its eastern member states.
Despite being referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) last year for a lack of willingness to meet refugee allocation quotas, Hungary and Poland’s fierce anti-immigrant stance remains strong.
– With a history of primarily homogenous Christian culture, Hungary and Poland stand united in refusing to meet the EU’s immigrant relocation quotas, making the imposition of punitive measures on the part of the EU extremely difficult; and
– Conservatism is on the rise in Central Europe and countries neighbouring Hungary and Poland are taking an increasingly united stance against immigration
A POPULIST PARTNERSHIP
Since the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, both Hungary and Poland have opposed the relocation of asylum seekers, typically citing fears of Islamic terrorism. The EU has attempted to convince its more reluctant members by introducing a compulsory quota policy, but to no avail: Hungary and Poland have closed their borders to the plan.
Poland’s Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015 on a platform of national pride and anti-refugee rhetoric. Its conservative stance has been welcomed by most Poles, and largely mirrors that of Hungary’s governing right-wing Fidesz party. Both have been successful by vocally opposing refugees, Islam and multiculturalism. This sentiment is not restricted to the political elite; just a few months ago some 60,000 Poles took to the streets to protest the so-called Islamic invasion of Europe.
This anti-immigrant stance is one of the key drivers of the growing divisions within the EU, with countries like Italy and Greece feeling they are taking an unfair share of the burden.
In June 2017 both Hungary and Poland, along with the Czech Republic, were sued by the EU Commission and referred to the ECJ for not fulfilling their refugee quotas. In response, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki have promised to stick together to work against the “forces of metropolitan liberalism” and not accept a single immigrant.
Hungary and Poland tend to share similar positions on EU issues, including opposing a multispeed Europe and unwillingness to join the Eurozone at the current stage. The two countries also share an apparent predilection for breaching EU law. While Hungary is currently under investigation for violating the right of freedom of association regarding foreign-funded NGOs, Poland is being obliged to reverse its recent judicial reforms that the EU says threaten the rule of law.
Their shared positions and track record of infringement have brought the countries closer together. During the Polish Premier’s recent visit to Budapest, Prime Minister Orban pledged to veto any punitive measures taken by the EU against Warsaw.
Further exacerbating issues are Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 8 — the campaign is increasingly focusing on migration issues. While opinion polls indicate that Fidesz will remain in power, its lead has been decaying slightly over the last two months, falling from 57% to 49%. Although Orban’s re-election is all but guaranteed, internally he is facing significant pressure to blame Brussels for all of Hungary’s problems.
Similar populist sentiment is also on the rise in neighbouring countries. The Austrian People’s Party — a conservative Christian grouping — was re-elected to government last year on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim platform. It is currently in coalition government with the Freedom Party of Austria, an extreme far-right party that heavily opposes the EU. The Czech Republic — also referred to the ECJ — only took in 12 refugees at the start of the migrant crisis and has since refused to take any more. Slovakia also lodged a formal complaint to the Court regarding the EU’s mandatory immigrant relocation scheme.
While Hungary and Poland are at the fore of the migrant debate, their stance is one that is gaining traction in central Europe and beyond.
A STEADFAST ALLIANCE
If found guilty by the ECJ, EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has said that Hungary and Poland would pay an “unspecified price in the future”. Nonetheless, their unwillingness to accept its rulings in the past indicates that tension within the EU lies ahead.
As Budapest and Warsaw’s positions on immigration remain resolute, it is likely that Brussels’ attempted legal actions against them will only increase in the coming months. But while the EU is rife with talks of sanctions, punitive measures are virtually impossible: action against a member-state requires unanimity, and Hungary and Poland will continue to back each other. While their dependence on EU funds makes them somewhat vulnerable, as long as they enjoy mutual support as well as that of other member-states, they can effectively curtail Brussels’ ability to act against them. As the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s doorstop decreases, EU pressure on these unwilling states will also wane.
Overall, developing common EU policies on controversial issues will become much more difficult as the Hungary-Poland alliance is strengthened. As member states such as Austria and the Czech Republic become increasingly conservative and populist, developing a single EU stance on issues such as immigration and integration will become even more challenging. Hungary and Poland’s stance against Brussels may also inspire neighbouring countries to follow. Increasing divisions between the EU’s Western and Eastern members can therefore be expected, making shared European stances on more controversial issues such foreign policy seemingly unattainable.
Although the EU will publicly continue in its attempts to push its Eastern member states to fulfil their migrant quotas, behind the scenes it may take a softer approach. Already in the past, European Council President Donald Tusk attempted to remove the quota scheme to appease Eastern member states. Similarly, the Commission has recently expressed its desire to bring Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic back to the negotiating table to discuss the issues.
For Hungary, much will depend on the election results in April. While Orban will almost definitely be re-elected, until that moment he will remain under increasing pressure to display a tough stance against the EU, which will involve standing united with Warsaw. Another four years of clashes between Hungary and the EU can be expected after his re-election. As long as Hungary has the support of countries such as Austria and Poland, it has little incentive to bow to Brussels’ whims.
Poland will consequently remain steadfast and united with Hungary. While talks of “Poexit” are increasing, in reality its departure from the EU is virtually impossible. As the biggest beneficiary of EU funds, it has the most to lose from leaving. But this does not mean it will soften its stance on immigration: the government’s views are almost unanimously backed by the people, meaning it has little incentive to change. While Poles and Hungarians remain united against immigration, Brussels will struggle to impose any influence on this matter.