For weeks the Visegrad Four countries – including the Czech Republic – were adamant they would oppose mandatory quotas but on Tuesday, Poland surprised its partners by completely changing course, voting with the majority of EU interior ministers in favour of the plan. I asked political analyst Jiří Pehe why most of the EU opposed the voluntary acceptance of refugees which had been pushed for by the former communist bloc countries.
“I think that the majority of the EU feels that unless we have a system which can be enforced and is transparent, a distribution of refugees within various countries simply won’t work. It can’t work on a voluntary basis also because there are certain countries, such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic, which want only a certain kind of refugee. That system would not work as the Czech Republic or Slovakia or Hungary prefers Christians and the rest would be 'stuck', so to speak, with the others. That certainly doesn’t seem like solidarity among the EU countries.
“The other reason the EU pushed for mandatory quotas is because western countries especially need to show their voters they are not going it alone, that other countries are also willing to share the burden. They needed confirmation that the European Union as a whole is a sensible project. The quotas may end up not working as well as some may think they will but I think symbolically the move is one of enormous importance.”
In the end, the Visegrad Four didn’t hang together: Poland changed tack and turned 180 degrees, Slovakia says it will ignore the quotas no matter what and will launch legal action; where does this leave the Czech Republic, which currently has the leadership of the group?
“I think the Czech Republic definitely chose the wrong allies in the refugee crisis. By allying itself with Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, who has been criticised by the EU on many levels, or with Slovakia with Robert Fico, I think the country shot itself in the knee, so to speak.
“The most surprising thing in all of this is that the Czechs had no ‘retreat strategy’: they went to the summit of interior ministers without a Plan B. It seems that at that level they really did underestimate their allies, such as Poland, who proved to be more skilled by changing sides and supporting the majority when they saw the Visegrad position would be defeated. That will see positive consequences for Poland as it is no longer one of the countries blocking a European compromise.”