Germany’s Schengen Threat to Central Europe Backfires

Central European nations won’t be cowed into signing up to a quota system for asylum seekers.

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

When Germany temporarily shut its border with Austria this weekend and warned that the Schengen visa-free travel agreement would be at risk if Central European nations didn’t admit more immigrants, it seemed an ill-veiled threat to those states that have benefited the most from unimpeded access to the West.

But so far, it isn’t working.

On Tuesday, Hungary closed its border with Serbia altogether and said it would turn back asylum seekers who had crossed through a country it now considers safe.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Austria — which earlier likened Hungary’s policy to Nazi deportations — followed suit.

Serbia said the Hungarian measure was “unacceptable” and responded by bussing migrants to the border with Croatia instead, another European Union member state.

The moves come after European interior ministers failed to agree on a quota system at a Monday summit in Brussels.

The European Commission has proposed distributing asylum seekers proportionately across the countries that are in the European Union. Germany and Sweden now take in far more immigrants relative to their size than most. Germany’s Thomas de Maizière suggested that nations that don’t comply with the scheme — which could be forced through by a majority — should be penalized.

“I think we must talk about ways of exerting pressure,” the German minister told ZDF television before pointing out that some of the countries that oppose quotas are net beneficiaries of European Union funds.

Millions of workers from the former East Bloc nations that joined the union in 2004 have also benefited from Europe’s free-movement policy and its internal market to find jobs in richer Western countries.

But the Central Europeans won’t budge. Tomáš Prouza, the Czech state secretary for European affairs, said De Maizière’s threat was “empty but very damaging.” Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, insisted that his government would never agree to quotas and that threats of financial retaliation could lead to “the end of the EU.”

Slovakia earlier said it would prefer to only take in Christian refugees while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán argued that the migrant crisis was Germany’s to deal with. “Nobody would like to stay in Hungary so we don’t have difficulties with those who would like to stay in Hungary,” he said.

His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, backpedaled on Tuesday, saying, “I don’t think threats are the right way to achieve agreement.”

She expects Germany to take in as many as one million asylum seekers this year from the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The cost of processing and sheltering the record number of migrants could be as high as €10 billion.

For weeks, Germany has warned that it may not be able to bear the strain. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that now-welcoming attitudes toward newcomers could change if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.”

Conservative German politicians have argued that Western Balkan nations, such as Serbia, should be declared “safe” so asylum seekers from the region can be returned.

Many applicants from the Balkans, numbering in the tens of thousands, are sent back already but they each need to be assessed anyway, delaying the process for refugees from countries like Syria.

Germany absorbed millions of refugees from the East in the aftermath of World War II and now has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.

Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, are ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors and had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the war.

Yet they are not the only ones wary of admitting more immigrants from especially Muslim states.

Denmark, where the nationalist Danish People’s Party got 21 percent of the votes in June’s election, closed a motorway and rail links with Germany last week in an attempt to stop migrants heading north to Sweden.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is the largest in the polls and advocates leaving the European Union altogether to stop what it describes as the “Islamization” of the country.

In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second-largest nation may need to pull out of Schengen. He also argues that quotas will only make the crisis worse if they attract more asylum seekers.

The Socialist administration of François Hollande is ambivalent.

Germany’s only real allies on the issue are the very countries that resist its austerity program of fiscal consolidation and liberalization in the eurozone: Italy and Greece. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis on the Mediterranean. More than 400,000 people have made the dangerous boat crossing this year alone. The majority came through Turkey to European problem child Greece.

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