Poland, Hungary and Czechia failed to fulfil their legal obligations under EU law when they refused to participate in the relocation system for refugees in 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday (2 April).
“This ruling is important. It is referring to the past but it will give us guidance for the future. The Court is very clear on the responsibility of the member states,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference following the decision.
In 2015, over a million people arrived in Europe seeking international protection. The EU’s asylum system where front-line countries are bounded to process the request collapsed. Through a Council decision, EU leaders set up a relocation system to alleviate pressure on Italy and Greece, the main points of entry.
After Warsaw, Budapest and Prague refused to contribute to the effort, the European Commission referred them to the Court back in 2017 for an infringement of the EU law that has now been confirmed.
The ruling found that the three countries had failed to apply the Council conclusions to establish a mandatory relocation system for up to 120,000 people in need of international protection.
Furthermore, Poland and the Czech Republic also failed to uphold a voluntary system previously set up to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers, which Hungary did not take part in at all.
Poland pledged to relocate 100 people but never did, Czech Republic indicated it would welcome 50 applicants but only welcomed 12 and Hungary never showed any intention of participating in the system.
Not a security issue
Poland and Hungary claimed their right to disobey the obligation arguing that member states are entitled to do so when applying asylum policy might affect law and order and the safeguarding of internal security.
However, the Court disregarded this argument pointing out that authorities would have to rely on “a case-by-case investigation, on consistent, objective and specific evidence that provides grounds for suspecting that the applicant in question represents an actual or potential danger.”
What Poland and Hungary did was make use of that provision “for the sole purposes of general prevention and without establishing any direct relationship with a particular case to justify suspending the implementation of or even ceasing to implement its obligations under the relocation decisions,” the Court added.
The Czech government based its argument on the “malfunctioning” of the asylum system. However, the Court said that whether the system works or not does not affect the obligation for countries to comply with it.
The Court argued that member states cannot be able to avoid any obligation by relying on their own unilateral assessment of lack of effectiveness of a policy mechanism. Otherwise, “the objective of solidarity inherent to the relocation decisions and the binding nature of those acts” could be undermined.
According to the latest Commission figures, when the mechanism expired, only 31,503 people had been relocated.
A pending migration pact
The migration crisis proved the existing legislation was insufficient to confront an emergency and the system collapsed.
However, with the reform of the migration and asylum policy stuck at the Council – due to the blockage by a number of member states – von der Leyen announced that she would come with with a new strategy after being elected to lead the EU executive.
On Thursday, following the EU court ruling, the Commission president said her team, vice-president Margaritis Schinas and Commissioner Ylva Johanson, has been in close contact with all countries as well as the European Parliament over the past few months.
The Commission will put forward a new Migration Pact after Easter, President von der Leyen announced.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]