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Angered over EU migrant rules, Poland and Hungary veto a summit statement in a gesture of protest

The move was mostly a symbolic gesture of protest and though it torpedoed the joint statement, it had no direct impact on the EU’s migration policies

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium June 30, 2023.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium June 30, 2023.JOHANNA GERON (REUTERS)

Angered at being outvoted on a European Union migration agreement, Hungary and Poland vetoed Friday a statement by the bloc’s leaders on priorities for limiting the arrival of people into Europe without authorization.

The move — at the end of a two-day summit — was mostly a symbolic gesture of protest and though it torpedoed the joint statement, it had no direct impact on the EU’s migration policies.

However, it was an embarrassing public display of disunity at a time when attitudes have hardened as the entry of tens of thousands of people each year has fueled far-right sentiment at the ballot box in the 27-nation bloc.

European Council President Charles Michel, who chaired the summit, issued his own statement, which unlike the joint communique did not require full endorsement by the member countries.

Poland and Hungary “considered that they were not in a position to validate the conclusions” of the summit, Michel said. The two, he noted, insist that “relocation and resettlement should be on a voluntary basis and that all forms of solidarity should be considered equally valid and not serve as a potential pull factor for irregular migration.”

Poland and Hungary came to the meeting determined to defy a June 8 agreement to share responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization.

The deal balanced the obligation for countries where most migrants arrive to process and lodge them against the requirement for other members to provide support, whether financial or by hosting refugees. Countries refusing to take migrants in could pay 20,000 euros ($21,400) per person instead.

The agreement was sealed with a qualified majority vote of around two-thirds. Only Poland and Hungary at the time voted against it. A few other countries, notably Italy’s anti-migrant government, abstained.

The issue has been at the heart of one of the biggest political crises since 2015, when well over 1 million people, many of them Syrians fleeing the war in their country, arrived on Europe’s shores, overwhelming reception centers in Greece and Italy.

Greece and Italy felt abandoned by what they perceived as a lack of solidarity from their EU partners.

In their statements Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not mention Hungary or Poland but focused on getting the European Parliament to endorse the June 8 deal.

That may prove difficult: lawmakers insist on the mandatory relocation of refugees.

“What matters now is that we conclude the negotiations with the parliament quickly so that the legislation can be successful in this term” before the next EU elections in a year’s time, Scholz said, after a second day of talks spent trying to end the standoff.

Asked why he would think Poland and Hungary will ultimately respect any migrant deal, Scholz said he has “fundamental confidence in legislation mandated in the European treaties being respected by all involved.”

“I’m not very worried,” he said.

On the sidelines of the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told his country’s state radio on Friday that he would continue blocking new migration rules until consensus was reached, casting the proposal as a grave threat to his country.

“We will only accept any rule if everyone agrees on it, if there’s a consensus decision,” Orban said. “They want to require us to build migrant ghettos in Hungary.”

The number of people trying to enter the EU without authorization is on the rise. The border and coast guard agency Frontex said that over 50,300 attempts were made through the central Mediterranean Sea from January to May. It’s more than double in the same period last year, and the most since 2017. But migrant arrivals in Europe dwarf those seen in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.

The meeting came as the key smuggling destination of Lampedusa, an Italian island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, was once again overwhelmed by migrants.

According to the Italian Red Cross, some 2,380 people had disembarked in the past day, bringing the number of people housed in the migrant camp to 2,829, seven times more than capacity. Italian authorities were busy transferring them to other centers where their asylum claims can be processed.

Poland and Hungary, along with the Czech Republic, refused to accept migrant quotas hastily imposed in 2015. The EU’s top court ruled in 2020 that they had failed to respect the bloc’s laws. It remains an open question whether they might defy the rules again.

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