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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

EU refugee court ruling triggers new east-west feuding

The Commission said on Wednesday it may seek fines at the European Court of Justice within weeks for Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic if they do not start or resume taking people from the south

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on September 6, 2017, rejected efforts by Hungary and Slovakia to stay out of a European Union scheme to relocate refugees. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo
The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on September 6, 2017, rejected efforts by Hungary and Slovakia to stay out of a European Union scheme to relocate refugees. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo

The European Union's highest court ruled on Wednesday that member states must take in a share of refugees who reach Europe, dismissing complaints by Slovakia and Hungary and reigniting an east-west row that has shaken the Union's cohesion.

The Mediterranean refugee crisis which prompted mandatory quotas in 2015 for relocating asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy has receded, easing immediate pressure to force compliance on nationalist leaders who are making electoral capital from lambasting the EU while benefiting from Brussels' subsidies.

But defiant rejection from some ex-communist states that the EU accuses of slipping on democratic standards — Hungary called the judgment a political "rape" of EU law — indicated no let-up in tensions that are testing the bloc's internal co-operation.

In Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel is fighting for re-election against opponents who criticise her for taking in over a million migrants at the height of the drama, the interior minister threatened legal action against countries which fail to take in their allotted share of Syrian and other refugees.

But Hungary, where outspoken prime minister Viktor Orban has built border fences and made keeping out migrants a key plank of his re-election campaign for next year, branded the European Court of Justice ruling "appalling and irresponsible".

"This decision jeopardises the security and future of all of Europe," foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said.

"Politics has raped European law and values."

Italy, now the main destination for migrants taking to the sea following measures to block the route from Turkey to Greece and from Greece northward, has been prominent in calling for the wealthier western states to cut EU subsidies to poor neighbours which do not show "solidarity" in taking in migrants.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has echoed that threat, warning prime minister Orban that "solidarity is not a one-way street". But the EU executive is also anxious to calm tensions ahead of negotiations on a new seven-year EU budget that will be all the harder because of a hole left by Britain's imminent departure.

The Commission said on Wednesday it may seek fines at the European Court of Justice within weeks for Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic if they do not start or resume taking people from the south. Poland and Hungary, which argue Muslim immigration is a threat to their national security and stability, have in two years taken in none of their respective quotas of about 6,200 and 1,300 people.