The "Eastern-Western European Rift" on the refugee/migrant issue
Syrian asylum applicants in Europe

EU’s split on the refugee/migrant issue

The issue of how to deal with the refugee and the migrant flows causes deep divisions among EU member states. An important element of EU’s policy was the 22 September decision of mandatory state quotas. Yet, that decision was not unanimous: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia voted against. Hungary has been criticized by other member states and EU officials for its stance towards refugees and migrants (imprisonment threats, authorization for use of non-lethal weapons, army mobilization, etc) and its decision to build fences at its borders with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

The opposition to mandatory state quotas has been described as another issue in the so-called rift between Eastern and Western EU members. It is not the first time that the “new”, Eastern European countries differentiate from the “old” ones, not allowing for a common European stance. Yet this time the rift has been particularly intense since it was not confined in harsh language behind closed doors: it was expressed in public and we saw member-states exchanging accusations, even threats (e.g. Belgium spoke of economic sanctions against Hungary, while Hungary stated that will consider an appeal to the European Court against the decision for mandatory quotas).

In the core of the dispute – conflicting views about the EU and the state

One could argue that the opposition by Eastern EU members is related to economic reasons – i.e. the acceptance of refugees/migrants would impose additional burdens to their weak economies or that they lack efficient resources. However, these arguments do not sound convincing since countries in better economic shape (e.g. United Kingdom) have also expressed disagreements (therefore economic considerations do not seem to have a role in the stance towards refugees/migrants). What is more important, opposing countries barely mentioned economic burdens as a reason for disagreement and their arguments had nothing to do with economy.

Their stance can be explained by their perceptions and the vision they have for the European Union. It is the well-known conflict between the supranational EU (where states cede part of their power to institutions beyond the state) and the intergovernmental EU (where state remains the highest authority).

The most common criticism to the Eastern EU member states is that they undermine the formation of a European policy and put national above European interests. A question that arises here and needs a careful study is what we mean by “European” interests and through what processes these are defined and formed. Furthermore, one has to be extremely careful before talking about the existence of an “Eastern bloc” that opposes a more powerful (see integrated) EU – this opposition does not come exclusively from the Eastern members of the Union.

Conflicting views about the EU (supranational or intergovernmental) are often referred as the reason for divisions within the EU and its inability to form a common stance. Essentially, it is a conflict about state and opens the debate on the role, the significance and the place of the state within a supranational institution. The divisions we see in the refugee/migrant issue and elsewhere reflect conflicting views about the state and the uncomfortable coexistence of two levels – national and supranational.

The preference for an intergovernmental EU is a result of, we could say, the “traditional” conception of the state: state is an institution which was created to protect and promote the interests of its people and is the highest authority. In this concept, national interest is the guiding principle of state policies and no other interests are above the national ones. The territorial dimension is a crucial element in the “traditional” concept of the state: state power is exercised within a defined territory.

On the other hand, in the advocates of a supranational EU we can see the emergence of a “new” conception for the state: in this concept, the state accepts institutions that have higher authority as a result of its own concession of powers to these institutions. In other words, states create institutions that have higher authority. We see also differences in the purpose of the state: it does not protect and promote exclusively the interests of its people but the ones of a wider community (in this case, the interests of the European people) or even values above interests – remember the appeals to humanitarian principles like solidarity or the arguments of a “moral duty” of Europe to give shelter to people who flee war and persecution.

The disagreements over the refugee/migrant issue reflect the two different concepts of the state and how the “traditional” one is under pressure within a supranational institution. These pressures and the consequential changes are not always easily noticeable.

If we look at the issue in perspective then it becomes easier to understand the changes in the traditional concept of the state. In the case of refugee/migrant issue some decades ago the acceptance and host of refugees/migrants depended on the discretion and generosity of the state. Criticism against states that did not offer shelter to refugees or migrants in their territory was not as strong as it is today. The difference is related to the membership in a supranational institution: criticism does not include only humanitarian arguments but also the undermining of a common European stance.

Another point which shows the changes in the traditional concept of the state refers to the power it exercises within a certain territory. This power includes decisions on who and under what conditions is allowed to enter that territory. For example, the Hungarian Prime Minister defended its position not to accept mandatory quotas claiming that refugees/migrants would be a threat for the Hungarian identity. This claim reveals a “traditional” conception of the state: the state is here to protect its own people, the refugees and migrants are considered to be a threat and therefore are not allowed in our territory. However, let’s suppose that tomorrow 300,000 Greeks decide to move in Hungary or in the Czech Republic or in any other EU state. Wouldn’t that represent a threat to the Hungarian or any other identity? Following the line of thinking of the Hungarian Prime Minister the answer would probably be yes. However, he would not be able to do anything to prevent it. On the contrary, he would be obliged not only to accept them but also protect their rights exactly like his own citizens.

The conflict between the two different visions of the EU (supranational-intergovernmental) is not a new one and it is not going to be solved anytime soon. EU is an institution with elements from both visions, however the proportions between them are not static. The divisions that we often see within the EU are a result of its quest for balance between the national and the supranational. In this process, the state has the leading role and the way we conceive and define its purpose is going to be crucial. However, we can already see changes – the fact that nowadays the discussions and the search for “European” solutions are so common (to the point that can be considered as clichés), perhaps it is a development with more significance than the one we usually attribute to it.