The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled Thursday that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic failed to uphold their obligations regarding refugee quotas as required by law. The countries could face financial penalties for their actions.
In 2015 EU leaders had established a refugee relocation program in response to the large numbers of asylum seekers from the civil war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. EU countries were supposed to determine a share of asylum-seekers among those that arrived in Greece and Italy that they could re-locate. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, according to the ECJ, “failed to fulfill their obligations under European Union law” by not actually relocating the number of refugees they promised.
The ECJ also upheld an action brought by the European Commission against Poland and the Czech Republic concerning an earlier batch of asylum-seekers that the two countries refused to relocate. While Poland and the Czech Republic underdelivered on their promises regarding the earlier directive and the 2015 agreement, Hungary failed to take even the first step under the latter policy of determining the number of refugees it could relocate.
The three countries attempted various legal defenses for their actions, such as that the relocation system functioned poorly or that the Commission’s prosecution was invalid. The ECJ found these arguments unavailing. “[T]he burdens entailed by the provisional measures” of the resettlement program “must, in principle, be divided between all the other Member States, in accordance with the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between the Member States,” the court wrote. It held that “the Commission did not in any way exceed the limits of its discretion” in pursuing the states over their inaction.
Poland and Hungary also argued that they could justify refusing refugee resettlement on national security and public safety grounds, meaning they could derogate from EU obligations in this instance. But the ECJ noted that “according to settled case-law … although it is for the Member States to adopt appropriate measures to ensure law and order on their territory and their internal and external security, it does not follow that such measures fall entirely outside the scope of European Union law.” Screening and other mechanisms were available to these countries, the court observed, that would allow them to pursue their public safety objectives without resorting to derogation of the requirements of the EU’s governing treaties.
“[U]nder the relocation decisions,” notes the court’s press release, “national security and public order were to be taken into consideration throughout the relocation procedure[.]” Thus, the countries could not “peremptorily” derogate from treaty obligations to follow EU law “without establishing any direct relationship with a particular case to justify suspending the implementation of or even ceasing to implement its obligations.”