Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic suffered a blow on Wednesday as Brussels mounted a legal fightback to force them to comply with EU refugee quotas.
Championed by Germany, Italy and Brussels, the EU’s “relocation” law has become one of the bloc’s most divisive recent policy initiatives, forced through over the objections of states from eastern and central Europe.
On Wednesday the European Commission forged ahead in the legal battle to enforce the law, as it prepared to sign-off legal suits against the holdout countries.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, said he regretted the decision of the three member states “not to show solidarity and to ignore our repeated calls to participate in this common effort”.
He said that none of the responses from Budapest, Warsaw or Prague to the commission “justified that they do not implement the relocation decision”.
The decision to move forward with “infringement proceedings” against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic is a highly charged political step that will test whether the EU member states ultimately comply with rules they have called illegal and unjust.
The commission’s stance on refugees was bolstered on Wednesday by the European Court of Justice.
Hungary and Slovakia had mounted a legal challenge against the relocation decision, claiming it violated procedure, was improperly drafted in law and was neither a suitable or necessary policy response.
But in an opinion released on Wednesday an advocate general to the court rejected the claims as unfounded and recommended that judges dismiss the case. While the opinion is not binding, the views of the advocate general are followed in a majority of final rulings.
The opinion will reinforce the commission’s move to issue “reasoned opinions” against the three countries, which require them to comply with the relocation law or face court action.
Mr Avramopoulos welcomed the advocate general’s opinion but added the “door was still open” for the central-eastern countries to change their stance on the refugee quotas.
“If these member states decide to change position we are ready to work with them to address their concerns”, he said. “We are at the last stage but there is still time. Let’s hope reason will prevail.”
Wednesday’s decisions mark a rebuff to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has made the rejection of EU refugee policies his central political message for more than two years.
In a referendum in October last year 98.2 per cent of voters backed the government’s opposition to the EU’s refugee sharing programme, although the result was deemed invalid because of low turnout.
Mr Orban has since spent tens of millions of public funds on advertising campaigns, accusing the EU of endangering Hungarian security through its asylum policies.
Hungarian state secretary Pal Volner dismissed the opinion as politically motivated and said the court had joined in a plan to “upset and jeopardise the European people’s peace and security as part of a forced process of unknown origin”.
Mr Volner added: “The main elements of this statement are political, which are practically used to disguise the fact that there are no legal arguments in it.”
About 24,500 refugees have so far been relocated from Italy and Greece, a fraction of the 160,000 initially envisaged by the emergency legislation.
Hungary has refused to pledge places for refugees, Poland pledged places but has refused to relocate any individuals, and the Czech Republic has stopped complying with the regime since last year.
Should the ECJ eventually rule with the commission and uphold the law, it will confront Budapest and Warsaw with a political decision that could have far-reaching ramifications for the EU.
Outright refusal to comply once the legal challenges have run their course could have consequences in other areas, including Germany’s approach to the EU long-term budget, which must be negotiated by 2020.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.