January 21, 2017
Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: this new report from Poland considers the distinct character of V4 engagement with migration and assesses it in terms of 2016 policy statements, with the expectation that V4-Balkan attitudes and cooperation on the issue will continue during this year in an increasingly turbulent and divided Europe.
Despite the formal closure of the Balkan route last spring, the influx of refugees trying to reach EU Schengen Zone borders has not stopped. For future policy trends and decisions, it is necessary to take into account the role of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries, which have already been active in influencing EU policy since 2015. In the year ahead, their policies might affect the Western Balkans as much as the general dealing with the migration crisis itself.
Early Policy Formation
These countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – have become as important for the solution of the migrant crisis as their Western European counterparts, especially after their disagreement about the so-called migrant quota scheme became clear.
The first stages of the crisis mainly involved Greece and Macedonia, in 2015 and early 2016, which were then followed by Hungary, with the latter becoming “the first to erect a fence to keep migrants away from the country’s borders. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejected the quota mechanism from the very beginning, advocating the protection of the EU’s external borders instead,” reported EurActive recently. “This led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s and Croatia’s borders with Serbia,” as a FRONTEX report explained in a press release of 9 January 2017.
Since the beginning of the crisis, migrants have most often sought to continue towards other EU countries, mainly Germany. However, FRONTEX also noted that “the record number of migrants arriving in Greece in 2015 had a direct knock-on effect on the Western Balkan route,” which has led the V4 countries’ role to gradually grow in importance. The Greece-Macedonia-Serbia migrant corridor “led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s borders with Serbia.”
The Visegrad Approach and the Balkans and Greece in 2016
The V4 attitude toward migration has fundamentally differed from that of several Western European countries which, being overwhelmed by the influx of refugee, have accused the East of being a bloc lacking in solidarity by refusing to take people in, as a 2016 report from Visegrad Revue noted.
Therefore, their approach to solving the crisis has been mainly based on calls for strengthened external EU borders; this was the core message of the joint statement on migration released by the V4 in early 2016.
Gathering in Prague, in the presence of the President of the Republic of Macedonia and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria, the prime ministers of the four countries voiced their concerns and proposed their solutions by expressing “their full support for measures adopted at the European Union level with the aim of a more effective protection of the external borders, including reinforced cooperation with third countries while repeating their negative stance on automatic permanent relocation mechanism,” in an official joint statement of 15 February 2016.
This would also benefit the Western Balkans, an area in which stability is needed if the EU is keen in tackling the refugee crisis, the statement added. At that meeting, the V4 leaders also confirmed their support for Greece, the role of which has been considered pivotal in the management of the migrant flow.
Focus on Polish Views
An interesting insight into how the V4 may help in solving the migrant crisis, and the consequences this would have on the Balkans, is provided by Poland. At the February event, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Poland would do its part through helping countries of origin. This policy was reaffirmed in May 2016. These views (which were confirmed by the Presidency of the Visegrad Group in the document) have been developed by Poland, which explains its will to help migrants’ countries of origins. The purpose of this policy was to “deepen the cooperation with them in order to tackle the root causes of the current migratory pressure.” In their estimation, this would in turn ease the pressure on European borders and the Western Balkans, considered by the V4 as a valuable partner in the protection of EU external borders.
The Polish stance is unlikely to change to a more EU- and Germany-oriented one in the foreseeable future, due to the recent constitutional crisis and the prolonged clashes between its government and the EU itself. These statements become even more important following the renewed, huge presence of refugees on Serbian soil, which questioned the alleged closure of the Balkan route. At least 8,000 migrants remain in Serbia, according to La Repubblica. The Italian newspaper states that this is due to the opposition raised by Hungary and the border closures of other nearby countries, like Croatia.
Slovenia, Austria and Possible Outcomes
The obstruction of Slovenia and Austria will also play a factor at the upper edges of the ‘Balkan route.’ The latter is close to the V4’s negative stance regarding migrant quotas, while the former is toward the crisis could deteriorate the overall situation. Slovenia’s government, as recently reported by Balkan Insight, “backed an amendment to the existing Aliens Act on January 5, proposing tougher procedures towards asylum seekers and refugees for a trial six-month period – with a possible extension for another six months.”
Under this scenario, the police can refuse entry to most asylum seekers on the border, the same source stated. Moreover, this could cause the countries close to the Balkan route – Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary – to adopt the same measures, argues the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks. However, it is too soon to know whether this is realistic of just alarmism as the individual dynamics in each country differ tremendously.
Therefore, in conclusion, it can be said that the migration challenges faced by the EU since early 2015 have brought new factors and characters into play. The Western Balkans, due to the migrant crisis, is one of them. Although there are no easy solutions available, the region may well benefit from the strengthening of the existing diplomatic ties or the creation of new ones with the V4 countries. This could help Balkan states to address issues of internal stability, as well as with others linked to future EU inclusion.