Top EU court rejects Hungary, Slovakia bid to oppose refugee quotas

This file picture shows asylum seekers waiting outside a train station in Budapest, Hungary.
This file picture shows asylum seekers waiting outside a train station in Budapest, Hungary. PHOTO; REUTERS

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union's top court dismissed complaints on Wednesday (Sept 6) by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, upholding Brussels' right to force member states to take in asylum seekers.

In the latest twist to a divisive dispute that broke out two years ago when over a million migrants poured across the Mediterranean, the European Court of Justice found that the EU was entitled to order national governments to take in quotas of mainly Syrian refugees relocated from Italy and Greece.

"The court dismisses the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the provisional mechanism for the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers," the Luxembourg-based court said in a statement. "The mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate."

The programme set up by the executive European Commission was approved by majority vote of member states in the face of opposition from formerly communist countries in the east who said their societies could not absorb mainly Muslim immigrants. It provided for the relocation of up to 160,000 people, but only some 25,000 have so far been moved.

EU chief Jean Claude Juncker recently replied coolly to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s request for reimbursement for defending Europe’s external borders against illegal immigration, saying solidarity is a “two-way street", according to a letter obtained by AFP.

Mr Juncker’s European Commission, the EU executive, said last week it was ready to study Mr Orban’s request for Brussels to refund half the 800 million euros (S$1.29 billion) Hungary says it has spent on the borders.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Mr Juncker told Mr Orban that the EU had already given Hungary substantial sums to help tackle migration, including protecting its southern borders that are also EU external borders.

But he said Hungary has not always lived up to its part of the bargain.

“Solidarity is a two-way street. There are times in which member states may expect to receive support, and times in which they, in turn, should stand ready to contribute,” Mr Juncker wrote.

“And solidarity is not an à-la-carte dish; one that can be chosen for border management, and rejected when it comes to complying with relocation decisions that have been jointly agreed.”

Hungary has refused to admit its share of asylum seekers under a plan Brussels initiated two years ago to relocate around the EU the 160,000 Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans who arrived in the frontline countries of Italy and Greece.

Mr Orban has called immigration “the Trojan Horse of terrorism". In response to a wave of refugees and migrants crossing its border with non-EU Serbia in 2015, Budapest erected a razor-wire fence patrolled by soldiers and dogs.

It then reinforced that barrier with a second fence line, recruited some 3,000 special police and built another fence on its other southern border with Croatia, an EU member outside the passport-free Schengen zone.

Over 400,000 people crossed through Hungary in 2015 but the numbers fell to a trickle after the fences were built. Subsequently, the “Balkan Route” northwards from Greece was closed.

The construction drew fierce criticism from Brussels, though other EU member states later built their own versions.

Mr Juncker said he and the commission “remain committed” to working with Hungary toward a more efficient and fairer migration and asylum policy.