The EU on Wednesday won a high-level legal battle against eastern European countries that have refused to admit thousands of asylum seekers based on mandatory quotas for the bloc’s member states.
The European Court of Justice, the 28-nation bloc’s top court, threw out the challenge from Hungary and Slovakia against a scheme Brussels launched two years ago to ease the burden on Greece and Italy.
The European Union has been grappling with the worst migrant crisis since World War II, with more than one million people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
“The court dismisses the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the provisional mechanism for the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers,” the Luxembourg-based court said.
“That mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate.”
The continuing crisis peaked in 2015. More than 1.6 million people have landed on Greek and Italian shores since 2014.
The verdict was welcomed by the European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation bloc.
“It is very good news,” EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a press conference in Brussels, it was “an opportunity” to call on all member states to show solidarity.
– ‘Trojan Horse of terrorism’ –
However, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto slammed the verdict as “irresponsible,” saying it “threatens the security of all of Europe”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called migration the “Trojan Horse of terrorism.”
The top court’s press office told AFP there is “no onward appeal for Hungary and Slovakia” when asked about Szijjarto’s vow that Budapest will use “all legal means” to fight the scheme.
In Bratislava, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said his government “fully respects the court’s decision” as it wants to remain at the “EU’s core” but nevertheless called quotas “politically wrong.”
A majority of EU member states decided in September 2015 to relocate 120,000 Syrian and other asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to most of other member states. Under EU treaties, Britain, Ireland and Denmark do not have to participate.
It is part of a scheme to relocate a total of 160,000 asylum seekers by September this year.
– ‘Misunderstanding’ –
Officials in Brussels have argued that the scheme is legally binding on member states, including those that voted against the quotas like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania.
Poland initially supported the plan but has come out strongly opposed since a right-wing government came to power.
The court said Poland intervened in support of Hungary during the legal deliberations, while the commission, along with Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden and several other member states, argued for the relocation plan.
Former communist eastern member states opposed the plan, saying they were not equipped to integrate people from mainly Muslim countries.
Other EU member states have dragged their feet despite having voted for the plan, with diplomats saying several cited the need to boost security checks following terror attacks.
Brussels launched the relocation scheme as an exception to the so-called Dublin rules under which migrants must apply for asylum in the member state where they first land.
Under international and European law, countries are required to grant asylum to people fleeing war or persecution but not those classed as economic migrants, the EU designation for most sub-Saharan Africans.
Tensions erupted in 2015 between EU neighbours when they restored border controls on the passport-free Schengen zone, a symbol of EU unity, to stop surges of migrants.
But they have eased with a sharp decline in migrant flows.
This is largely a result of a controversial deal the EU signed with Turkey in March last year to send back migrants in return for billions of euros in aid and for admitting asylum seekers directly from refugee camps in Turkey.
Some 54,000 are now due to be taken from camps in Turkey, which lowers the total figure to be relocated from Greece and Italy.
However, Avramopoulos said there is a “misunderstanding” if the public believes member states should have taken in by now more than 100,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy — when in fact they have admitted just under 28,000.
He said the total to be relocated from the two EU states is “much lower” with a 97 percent drop in people landing in Greece from Turkey and with the fact most arriving in Italy from Libya are not eligible at all.
Under the plan, Hungary must admit more than 2,300 asylum seekers, while Slovakia must in the long term take in 1,400. Hungary has admitted none, but Slovakia has taken in a handful.