The EU’s decision-making capacity is strongly guided by the Eastern members, representing an increasingly unified stand opposing Western proposals regarding the solution to the migration crisis, writes Katalin Miklóssy.

miklossyThe difference in relationship to the European refugee crisis between the Western and Eastern EU countries has been highlighted not only by the media in the EU countries but also outside the EU. The Eastern EU countries’ reluctance to accept refugees and their stubborn opposition to mandatory quotas has received much attention. The Eastern EU countries have faced an unprecedented problem in a relatively short period at their borders. The EU’s reaction has been much too slow, with inadequate suggestions. It has looked like the Eastern EU countries’ repeated plea for concrete help has not been heard in Brussels.

This negative experience further strengthens the otherwise steadily growing criticism of the EU in the Eastern group that has become evident since the 2014 EU elections. The latest episodes expedite the erosion of trust in the EU´s competence to manage crises of this scale.

Initially, the dissatisfactory EU response left the countries to deal with the mounting problems by themselves: this consequently enhanced the national ethos, and the diverse answers turned the countries of the Balkans against one another. However, the Eastern countries begun to search for working solutions together, relying on each other. The Visegrád countries, comprising the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, agreed to take part in the protection of the external border of the European Union and the Schengen zone on Hungary’s southern border. Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia (still a candidate country) refused to serve as transit countries for mass migration and have agreed upon a united policy, especially if Austria and Germany slow down border entry. The formation of a unified stand in the East is well under way and will most probably receive a tailwind from Poland’s latest election results, according to which the nationalist forces critical of the EU have won.

Decisiveness in opposing the Western EU countries’ policy is increasing. The Eastern countries are puzzled by the mixed messages coming from Germany and France. On the one hand, the Eastern group was supposed to maintain the EU agreements (Dublin ad Schengen), secure borders and register migrants; on the other hand, when they tried to do so it was not appreciated. The situation has brought back discussions about the meaning of sovereignty and memories of the past when the Eastern bloc were the satellites of the Soviet Union and had to obey orders from Moscow, the then power centre.

These countries also share a mutual understanding of the potential dangers posed by the large numbers of Muslim migrants. In addition, xenophobia is generally strong in these countries, most of them lacking a considerable foreign population. The anti-migrant attitude is rooted in a lack of integration experience. The examples of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment that still exist, even if both groups of people have been living in these countries for centuries, shows this to be the case.

As Donald Rumsfeld remarked in 2003 on the eve of the EU enlargement of 2004, ‘The center of gravity (e.g. in Europe) is shifting to the east and there are many new members’. He was ridiculed by some old member states, especially by French and German politicians, at that time. However, it seems that the Eastern EU countries’ attitude and tough immigration policy have also become popular in the Western parts of the EU. The EU’s decision-making capacity is now strongly guided by the Eastern members, which represent an increasingly unified stand against Western proposals regarding the solution to the migration crisis. It seems that the centre of gravity in the EU is indeed changing.

Katalin Miklóssy is a senior researcher leading the new Jean Monnet Module at the Aleksanteri Institute.

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