Czech EU Secretary: Refugee quotas are just a PR exercise

tomas_prouza.jpg [EURACTIV Czech Republic]

Refugee quotas as proposed by the Commission are just a public relations exercise. Refugees should have an opportunity to choose the country where they want to seek asylum, Tomáš Prouza, State Secretary for European affairs told EURACTIV Czech Republic in an exclusive interview.

Tomáš Prouza is a Czech economist, former Deputy Minister of Finance and since January 2014 State Secretary for European Affairs at the Czech Prime Minister’s Office.

He spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Editor-in-Chief, Lucie Bednárová

In September, Prague hosted a summit of V4 heads of governments. Prime ministers stressed the importance of Schengen Area protection and offered some concrete steps that would help to tackle current refugee crisis. The meeting was also meant to demonstrate the unity of Central European countries, in dialogue with their European counterparts. However, when I read the joint declaration, my feeling is that there is nothing new. It seems that everything was already said, albeit in a different way. Do you think that the signal was strong enough?

For the first time, V4 countries came up with a list of actions they could do and are also ready to do. We did not like that our position used to be reduced to our objections to quotas, and we wanted to change that perception by the summit.

I would like to stress that prime ministers are not here to present detailed plans of actions. It is like conclusions of the European Council. They also describe only main lines and directions in which the countries want to proceed and steps they are willing to take. Implementation is then up to responsible ministers. Therefore, a part of the results of the V4 summit was a set of tasks for ministers of foreign and home affairs. It is now their job to work these plans up.

The Czech Republic, along with some other Central and Eastern EU states, was criticised by its partners for its stance on refugee crisis. Some of our Western partners suggested that our country has not shown enough solidarity with the refugees. Are not you afraid that the Czech stance on the crisis could backfire in the future, and worsen our position in other dossiers, such as cohesion funding?

Sure, tension is growing. But it is fuelled by some Western politicians who are eagerly pointing their fingers and by doing so, they stir up the disputes between the West and the East. In my view, a lot of these statements are made for their public at home. In most of the cases, they are made by the politicians who are in a run-up to elections, or have some local issues.

Unfortunately, we need to accept that we will see some pressure to use the refugee debate to limit the cohesion funding. But we have seen it before. Some countries have been calling for that for quite a long time. Whenever there was a debate about the next multiannual financial framework, the biggest issue was always the amount that was supposed to be redistributed. But it is true that those who are against cohesion will get some strong arguments these days.

Last week, in his State of the Union speech, the President of the European Commission proposed a permanent relocation mechanism that would allow dealing with future crisis situations more swiftly. However, prior to that speech, the Czech Republic, together with its V4 partners, made itself clear that it would not support any quotas. How should the mechanism be designed in order to be acceptable? Are quotas really a red line for the Czech government?

What do we want to achieve by this mechanism? If the quotas are intended to send people to some other place in Europe, where, in fact, they do not wish to go, is it really the solution? Of course, you can put a refugee who entered the EU in Italy on a train and send him to the Czech Republic or Estonia. But the first time after he arrives, he will flee to Germany. The only dream of these people is to get to Germany. They do not care about the rest of Europe. That is why we claim that quotas make no sense. They will be useless, costly, and it looks like a PR exercise. The only result is that the journey will become longer and more costly for refugees.

What do you propose instead?

Refugees should have an opportunity to choose the country where they want to seek for asylum. Therefore, we need a system of functioning hotspots that would process their primal registration. Asylum applications would be administered on the spot, in line with procedures of a receiving country and in the presence of its officials. Should the officials approve the application, migrants would be allowed to go. Asylum procedures would be finalized after their arrival in receiving country. If their application is declined, they would need to be returned.

At the moment, refugees are not heading to the Czech Republic. But how can you be sure that it is not going to change?

This is precisely what I am talking about. If we had functioning hotspots, migrants would get an opportunity to choose where they want to seek asylum. They would be free to choose the Czech Republic, too.  If their application is approved, they can come, and once all the necessary procedures are completed, they can also stay.

We can reasonably assume that the influx of refugees will grow stronger and that the capacity of those countries that are attractive to refugees (for examples due to the existence of local Diasporas) are not unlimited. What are we going to do afterwards?

The situation cannot be solved afterwards. We need to solve it now. One of the essential steps we need to take to keep the influx of refugees under control is to make return policy work. Of course, we will take care of those who have right of asylum, those who are fleeing war and striving for their lives and lives of their families. But at the same time, Europe needs to get rid of the image of a promised land. We need to be able to quickly return to so-called ‘economic migrants’ – people, who are not endangered in their home countries, and who have just heard that they can do better in Europe.

What are the specific areas where the Czech Republic can contribute to the joint solution of the refugee crisis?

Our top priority is to find European consensus on the European list of safe countries of origin, where the refugees can be automatically returned to. It is absolutely essential to have all the candidate countries at such a list. We cannot be in a situation where a country that has been seeking EU membership is not considered safe. This applies to the Western Balkans and Turkey. To some extent, Czech diplomacy can also help to exert pressure [on some governments] to make readmission agreements working. We have historical ties with many African countries that we can make use of. Our third priority are the hotspots I already spoke about. We can provide means, equipment and the personnel.

Last but not least, there is raising public expenditures on development aid. Unless we help regions where the refugees are coming from, we cannot succeed.

In the Czech Republic, some people are saying that countries who are against quotas should renounce a part of their cohesion money. They say that these funds could be used for the strengthening of Frontex, for instance. Would it be helpful?

First of all, the EU still has a lot of resources in the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). These resources have not been used so far. But what is more important than any kind of political gesture is that every country specifies how much it is willing to contribute from the national budget. It is pretty easy to give up something we have not received yet. Our contribution must be tangible. It should not be just words.

What about the common asylum policy? Do we need to change the rules as a result of current crisis?

We will definitely need a change. We have countries in the EU with very swift asylum procedures, such as Germany, where applications are processed within two months. The result is that people can soon get involved within a society and are allowed to start working. That is very important. It would certainly be much appreciated if we could succeed in unifying these rules throughout Europe.

It is not acceptable that one country is able to process 99% of applications within two months, while others can only handle 5%.

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