Can the Czech Runoff Election Impact the Country’s Stance on Migration?

On Friday and Saturday, voters will head to the polls in the Czech Republic for a presidential runoff vote between incumbent Miloš Zeman and his competitor, Jiří Drahoš. The polls are very close, with Czeska Televisa 24 / MF Dnes reporting a slight lead for Drahos with 47 percent of the vote to Zeman’s 43 percent, with ten percent still undecided.

In Czech, the president appoints the prime minister, making this vote more than a referendum on Zeman’s past performance. Waiting in the wings is billionaire populist and recently elected Prime Minister Andrej Babiš of the ANO (“Yes”) party, who has endorsed Zeman and expects his support if he wins in forming a government. A vote for Zeman then is a vote for Babiš, who is under investigation by Czech authorities for decades-old corruption charges related to EU subsidy fraud, charges which he denies. Whether this association is an advantage or a liability will only become clear this weekend.

As we have explained previously, the immigration debate in the Czech Republic is extremely tilted towards immigration restrictionist views, with nearly all parties and political figures united in their opposition to accepting asylum seekers as part of the EU’s proposed quota distribution system, and politicians making outspoken remarks against migrants from Muslim majority countries. Both Babis and Zeman have in the past made remarks characterizing people who migrate or seek asylum as dangerous threats to Czech citizens, with Zeman comparing Muslims in general to Nazis and warning of a “super-Holocaust” during an interview with the Guardian in 2016. Such violent rhetoric has been accompanied by a rise in hate speech and an antagonistic environment for minorities. (Given that there are very few accepted refugees in the country, threats and attacks have rather been aimed at minority groups such as Roma and groups who show support for refugees, according to Amnesty International.)  In addition, Zeman is an important figure in the Visegrad Group, the club of countries (with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary) that have strongly opposed EU distribution of people seeking asylum.

But where does his opponent Drahoš stand, and would a win for him be an opening for a change in the country’s stance on migration?

Drahoš, formerly the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, lays out his stance on refugees on his website, where it is second on his list of “frequently asked questions“. He states, “As a scientist, I am used to finding solutions to problems and I believe that even the refugee crisis has its solution.” This would consist of the following steps, according to Drahoš:

  • Strengthen secret services to help identify people entering the EU and offer assistance to Italy,
  • Invest in measures to improve the living conditions in countries people are currently fleeing from,
  • Distinguish between “real” refugees and people who are seeking welfare benefits, who he ideally would not let in at all,
  • Terrorism is not a reason for excluding refugees and can be combatted, but we must fight against the erosion of our values and standards,
  • Migrants should be interviewed at European borders to determine whether they are willing to embrace European norms and values.

In short, Drahoš embraces a center-right stance on asylum, a view that on the surface has much in common with other mainstream parties in Europe, such as Mark Rutte’s VVD in the Netherlands. These proposals also largely match the solutions stated by the Visegrad group. The “V4” also calls for aid packages to incentivize people to stay in their home countries and for better distinction between what they refer to as “economic migrants” and refugees. Drahoš’ policy proposals fit squarely in, with the exception that he does not outright oppose quotas (at least here), but rather argues that forcing people to stay in a country they to which they did not intend to immigrate violates the principle of freedom of movement, a creative argument that somewhat avoids the question.

His proposals also enter familiar territory for the center-right immigration stance: ideas that sound tough but end up flirting with illegality or impossibility. For instance, pre-selecting between “real” refugees and others, “ideally” outside of the borders is an idea frequently floated but in violation of the ground principals of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other laws and treaties. Namely, individuals have a right to leave their own country, to enter a country to ask for asylum and to have their claims evaluated while they remain in the country. Sending them back to a country where they potentially face persecution or preventing them from entering before evaluating their claim risks violating binding international and European law. (We have pointed this out repeatedly in response to similar proposals by the Front National and the Tories.)

Further, conducting interviews to ascertain whether individuals adhere to “European values” is perhaps not illegal but highly unrealistic. What are “European values”? How is asking someone to adhere to European values different or better than holding them to follow the law? How can you square the requirement to hold a certain set of beliefs in order to enter with the European legal concept of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights article nine?

These policies differ from Zeman not so much in substance as in style. While Zeman has run a “non-campaign” and has not proposed concrete policies, he has made his opposition to migrants, and especially people from Muslim majority countries, well-known. In an interview with Večernje Novosti in 2017, he repeated his typical war-like language to describe migrants and Muslims more generally:

“…[I]t is said that in Africa, at least several million people are ready to migrate to Europe. Because they are mostly Muslims whose culture is incompatible with European culture, I do not believe in the ability to assimilate them. 

By the way, when you look at the history of Europe, it was actually a constant war with Muslims. And I think that Serbia has experienced it, among other things, in Kosovo’s field.” 

These comments don’t elucidate much in the way of policy recommendations and do not differentiate between migrants who are Muslim or citizens of Europe who are Muslim. In either case, he is suggesting that they do not belong because of their religious affiliation and should be viewed as a hostile enemy, as the Ottoman military forces were in Kosovo in 1389, but he does not promote any policy proposals to exclude them. It is rhetoric that promotes fear and enmity without directing it anywhere concrete- perhaps because policies that exclude or discriminate on the basis of religious belief violate numerous European laws and do not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

The fact is, even with a incomplete or unrealistic immigration policy, Drahoš presents an alternative to rhetoric that relies on fears from back in the Middle Ages. The policies he promotes do not suggest a major departure for the Czech Republic’s stance on refugees and migrants, but they do take a risk in actually spelling out ideas that can be subjected to debate. As the President of Czech does not legislate, his stance on the refugee issue is mainly symbolic. But for voters, its a question of a leader who sounds like other mainstream European leaders, or one who sounds like he is expecting all-out war against a religious minority.

 

Sources and Further Reading
The latest poll for the election favors Drahos, a tenth of voters still hesitate, [Czech] Czeska Televiza, Jan. 22, 2018
ANO supports Zeman for President, Babis for Prime Minister, [CzechNovinky (also linked to on official ANO website), Jan. 22, 2018
If I wanted to hide something, I would have stayed in the shadows, [Czech] Andrej Babis’ blog in iDnez.cz, Feb. 2016
Milos Zeman: the hardline Czech leader fanning hostility to refugees, The Guardian, Sept. 2016
Facebook has a problem with death threats in the Czech Republic, Vice News, Nov. 2017
Czech Republic 2016/2017, Amnesty International Report
Frequently Asked Questions, [Czech], JiriDrahos.cz (campaign website)
Guide to Article Nine: Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, [pdf] Council of Europe
Interview of the President of the Republic for Večernje Novosti, [Czech], Reprinted on the President’s website, http://www.zemanmilos.cz
Header image: Via Ivan Centes on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2neIdqB (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Advertisements

Can the SPD’s Martin Schulz own migration in the upcoming German election?

The German election is coming in September and campaign season is finally beginning in earnest. German campaigns are not known for their vitriol, but it can be difficult to attract attention from voters when the two most popular parties (the centre-right CDU/ CSU and the centre-left SPD) are also coalition partners who have backed each other’s position on most major issues for years. The SPD is at a distinctive disadvantage: it’s been in government leadership for years as junior coalition partner to the CDU, so the two’s policies are seen as much the same, and the solid, inevitable-feeling lead of the CDU headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel makes it hard for voters to imagine something other than the status quo. At this point the question may be for the SPD, how can this election seem more like a contest of ideas and not a run-up to a foregone conclusion?

The first step was to get a new face. The Social Democrats were given a big boost when Martin Schulz, the popular two-time President of the European Parliament, announced his return to German politics as Chancellor candidate for the 2017 parliamentary elections. As seen in this Ipsos voter intention poll from the end of February 2017, the SPD appeared to have made significant ground on the CDU in the wake of Schulz’s announcement.

February:

“Which party would you vote for, if next Sunday were the election?”

Ipsos_Public_Affairs_Wahlforschung_26-02-2017

July:

Ipsos_PI_Sonntagsfrage_16-07-2017

As can be seen from the latest poll from mid-July, this headwind appears to have disappeared, with the CDU consolidating an even stronger lead with gains from some of the smaller parties (such as AfD) as well. As the SPD has been seeing its momentum dissipate, Schulz has been trying to find ways to distance and differentiate his party from their coalition partners, and it appears that he has started to thinks that one of the best ways to do this is to take a bold stance on migration.

A European Solution

In  late July Schulz traveled to Italy, where he visited a home for refugees in Catania and met with the Italian PM to discuss the “refugee crises.” At the same time he did a host of interviews on the subject,  which some in the media hailed as a “swipe” at Angela Merkel.

If we don’t want a repeat of what we experienced in 2015 then things have to change.

But what kind of changes is Schulz actually proposing? Taking a look at his announced “solidarity” plan for refugee politics, its clear that Schulz still has his head at the EU level. Here are two main proposals:

Hit countries that refuse people seeking asylum in their pocketbooks.

The European Commission is currently pursuing infringement proceedings against three Visegrad states that have categorically refused to accept redistribution of people seeking asylum from Italy and Greece under a short-term plan, as we have previously explained in detail (see: Sympathy for the Visegrad Group?). Schulz and the SPD would go about convincing naysayers in a more direct way: states who don’t cooperate with EU-wide redistribution (or quotas) would lose access to EU funds. Those who do would receive compensation and benefits. This, Schulz writes, would be carried out through a “solidarity pact.”

In the Solidarity Pact, it must be clear that countries which refuse solidarity on important issues must face financial disadvantages and can no longer count on the full financial solidarity of Germany and the other countries. Solidarity is not a one-way street.

Naturally, as Chancellor of Germany Schulz would no longer have the position at the European Commission to effect such a plan directly. He could (and would) however be able to veto EU financial plans if such conditions aren’t met. Given the legal battles already underway with countries such as Slovakia and Hungary, this would set up a slightly more direct confrontation between Germany and countries rejecting redistribution plans. On the other hand, countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, who stand to benefit the most from such assistance, would likely support a more confrontative approach.

Create legal pathways to immigrate to Europe

Europe is an immigrant continent. In order to maintain our economic power, we are dependent on immigration, especially by well-qualified specialists. A European immigration law should create common rules for this. We urgently need an opportunity for regulated immigration.

Schulz argues that economic pressure and deaths at sea from people seeking asylum can be reduced if there are normal, legal pathways to immigrate to Europe. Speaking in Italy, he reportedly named some examples: “Canada has legal immigration, the United States has it, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand – they all have immigration rules.” This idea also isn’t new, but framed as a European solution raises the question of how, as Chancellor of Germany, Schulz could hope to bring about this massive policy shift. Would Germany first reframe its immigration policy more along the lines of Canada or the US, for example? Or would such a change only be welcomed on the European level?

Similarly, he suggests getting rid of the (EU-wide) Dublin regulation, which, among other things, allows for countries to send people seeking asylum back to the first European country of entry to have their application evaluated. Is Germany going to abandon Dublin first?

Can Schulz zero in on Germany when it comes to migration?

Its clear that what Schulz is proposing aims to tackle the issue of migration and asylum in the long term, on the European playing field. Tying European funding to willingness to participate in distribution scenarios, getting rid of the Dublin regulation, and starting a European wide legal immigration scheme are all hugely ambitious (and wildly controversial) goals, that moreover do not take place in the German domestic sphere. The future Chancellor of Germany plays a huge role in European policy formation, but decisions like these take years of hammering out details and forcing consensus, and do not hinge entirely on the suggestions of one country, no matter how large a role that country has played in the “refugee crises” in the past.

On the other hand, the issues of migration and asylum are inherently international, European issues. Its not incorrect to suggest that Germany can hardly effect changes on this subject alone. But without a domestic angle, these solutions feel aspirational and unrealistic. Angela Merkel is a well-known proponent of a European-wide approach to accepting refugees, and for all her clout very little progress has been made. Arguably, a European-wide solution is further away than ever.

Perhaps if Schulz really wants to stand out, he needs to suggest grounded, practical, German policies that have the potential to be realized in the short term. Reforming the German immigration system to provide more legal pathways to immigrate is a concrete example. In contrast to Merkel’s plodding style, some quick fixes might be in order if Schulz wants to regain momentum and convince voters that not every change requires waiting on Europe.

 

Sources and Further Reading
Voter Intention, IPSOS Sunday Polls
Why is Martin Schulz traveling to Italy?  Deutsche Welle (German), July 2017
German election WARS: Martin Schulz attacks Merkel on migration in explosive interview, Express, July 2017
Ensure a solidarity-based refugee policy in Europe, MartinSchulz.de
Towards a solidarity refugee policy in Europe, SPD.de
Schulz turns to immigration to revive flagging campaign, Reuters, July 2017
What is the Dublin Regulation?, European Commission
Asylum in Europe: The Dublin Regulation, UNHCR (pdf)
Header image via Parti Socialiste on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2wOcK1t (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sympathy for the Visegrad Group? A look at the V4’s migration proposals

In European migration politics, the governments of the so-called “Visegrad Group” or V4 – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia– have set themselves apart with their consistently strong stance against EU refugee policy over the past few years. The four strongly oppose a quota distribution system collectively and take a harsh tone against both Brussels’ migration policy and people seeking asylum in their national media. (For an example, read “Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Politics?”). As the European Commission takes steps to potentially punish three of the countries for refusing to follow a specific EU resettlement policy, the countries show no sign of backing down. But is there room for compromise?

Drawing a line in the sand

The European Commission announced it was taking the first step in infringement proceedings against three of the four Visegrad states –Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – for breaching Council decisions regarding relocation of people seeking international protection or asylum from Greece and Italy. Slovakia, who has legally challenged the relocation order and only accepts candidates based on strict preferences, has faced criticism but no threats of infringement (yet). Although Visegrad-adjacent Austria has also refused to accept any transfers of people, they are also off the hook in this case because they promised to accept 50 people in May 2017, according to an EC report on resettlements.

The countries implicated have all separately reaffirmed their intention to defy any resettlement plan, despite the Commission’s warning of infringement. Warsaw quickly issued a statement in response the announcement, calling the Commission’s actions premature in light of pending cases with Slovakia and Hungary at the ECJ, stating, “Poland stands ready to plead its case before the Court of Justice.” Just last week, presidential frontrunner of the ANO 2011 party and current deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told the Czech website Parlamentní listy: “As I said, I do not want a single refugee in the Czech Republic, not even temporarily.” And Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, connected his fight against resettling refugees to his ongoing efforts to stifle George Soros, telling students at a Hungarian cultural festival in Romania that Soros has been “using his money, people and institutions to transport migrants into Europe.” In the same speech, he said that Hungary would continue to endeavor to offer a “calm, Christian life” to its inhabitants and  “will not take in people who raise the concern in us that they will change our cultural identity.”

These public statements from Visegrad leadership are clear about what (or rather, who) they don’t want. But what do they offer as an alternative for handling migration on the European level?

What does Visegrad Want?

On July 19th, the Visegrad Group met in Budapest and issued a Joint Statement on Migration that outlined their position- not just what they stand opposed to, but what they offer as an alternative. In it, they reaffirm their commitment to a joint “consensus-based European solution” to dealing with migration. For the V4, the essential thing is to divide people seeking asylum from what they call “economic migrants”, a determination that they maintain should be made outside of EU territory but with the assistance of member states. Further, they write that any relocation schemes must be strictly voluntary, and the overall focus should be on preventing people from leaving their countries and entering Europe in the first place. The entire letter can be read here.

The tone of the letter is significantly subdued in comparison to what leading politicians have been telling their populations regarding asylum and Brussels, but that’s no reason to discard it. Let’s take a look at some of the key proposals and whether they are practical and further, whether they point to any areas that could lead to a compromise between the Visegrad Group and Commission.

1. Make asylum determinations outside of Europe

We believe that the precondition of any efficient strategy related to mixed migratory flows is to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. The necessary assessments have to be completed outside the territory of the EU in administrative centres protected and supplied with the assistance and contribution of the EU and its Member States.

In order to deal with asylum “at the roots”, as they write, it is necessary to move the asylum process outside of EU territory. This proposal is a familiar one, as can be seen by our discussion of former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s policy platform. There are several problems with this idea, but also an area of possible compromise.

One problem is the assumption inherent in this proposal that people migrating to Europe belong to either the category of asylum seekers or “economic migrants.” This division is confusing and artificial. In Europe, as all over the rest of the world, people migrate for a variety of reasons outside of seeking asylum. They may be seeking better opportunities and jobs, but they also might be hoping to reunite with a family member or loved one, access educational opportunities, gain medical treatment, or for any number of other reasons. They may not be able to access protection under the refugee convention, for instance, because authorities believe there are other safe areas to flee within their home country, but this doesn’t make their motives necessarily economic in nature. And importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not entitled to other forms of protection.

A second, stickier issue is the notion of completing assessments of people’s asylum claims outside EU territory. Nothing in EU or international law forbids the possibility of a state granting people asylum from a distance outside that state’s borders. In fact, countries do this all the time, often aided by government officials or NGOs within a country to identify people that can be transferred to another country to get protection.

The problem comes when this is posed as the only way of granting asylum. “Sequencing is crucial,” write the Visegrad Group, but legally, they have bound themselves to also accept refugees who apply from within their territory (as have all other European countries). The 1951 Refugee Convention and its follow up the 1967 Protocol both define refugees as someone who:

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The “outside their country” aspect is crucial. If countries were only willing to offer asylum to people who applied without leaving their own countries, then people would have to remain in a country where they are at risk while waiting for an answer- possibly facing death or torture. All V4 countries have signed both the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol (see UNHCR’s list of signatories for more details.) This binds them to accepting applications of asylum on their own territory, and to not “refouling” people (sending them back to places where they face persecution.) This definition of asylum as allowing people to leave their national borders to safety is also included within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (The “seek” part is also important: it means you are entitled to ask for asylum, even if you don’t ultimately receive it.)

It should be clear that people needn’t remain in their own countries to seek asylum, and that the members of the Visegrad Group are obligated to process asylum claims of people who make it to their territory and ask for protection, just as the rest of Europe is. But so long as this is guaranteed, a compromise could see more asylum decisions being reached in sending countries, such as through embassies or special centers for that purpose, without excluding the right to seek asylum in the traditional way as well. This could indeed prevent people who have no viable claim for asylum from making perilous journeys while expediting the process for people who do have viable claims.

However, a major concern would be to ensure that assessments carried out abroad comply with legal standards and aren’t a way of moving the asylum process out of sight and out of mind.

2. Secure external EU borders

We need to be able to fully protect the external borders of the European Union. At the same time, we need to remove internal border controls. We need to make sure that no one can avoid being properly identified and registered before entering the territory of the EU.

This proposal also offers plenty of room for agreement with the rest of Europe. The idea of strengthening external border controls while providing free movement within the EU is an aspiration that is nearly universally shared. This can be seen by the dramatic budget and staffing increase over the last years for the European border agency Frontex, headed out of Warsaw, and increasing funds for Italy to manage asylum assessments (and deportations.)

However, the implication that everyone can be “properly identified” before entering the EU is problematic for a few reasons. First, as discussed above, its a right under international and European law to seek asylum in other countries. This right is not limited to those who are “properly identified.” In other words, providing ID is not a prerequisite to seeking asylum, and attempting to stop people from entering because they cannot provide ID might violate international law.

Throughout the asylum application process people are grilled on their stories and asked to provide as much evidence as possible to back up their claims of persecution and country origin. But it must be recognized that, when fleeing war or persecution, it is sometimes not possible to bring full documentation. For others, these important papers might be lost in transit. Still others might be stateless, in which case they may never have had proper identification documents to begin with. Any of these circumstances do not take away a person’s right to ask for protection.

3. Use aid to discourage “pull factors” and prevent people from leaving

We need a sustainable European solution with the long-term objective of a proactive involvement of the EU and its Member States in the most affected Third Countries of origin and transit including improving their living conditions.

The idea of preventing migration through increasing development aid is an unproven concept that has nevertheless been pushed by people as diverse as Jean Luc Melenchon in France and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. The problem with the idea is that the EU already spend billions in development aid, but this aid may not reach people most vulnerable to persecution and war. Not to mention the fact that it does not address pull factors such as family reunification. Nevertheless, if aid is indeed aimed at improving living conditions and not at preventing people from leaving their country (as everyone is entitled to) then it is hard to see major downsides to ramping it up.

At the same time, there would appear to be room for improvement in this area from the states proposing the aid increase. The EU has targets for development aid to lower income countries known as “Official Development Assistance” (ODAs). In the latest Commission report on the subject (found here) it was noted that although progress has been made, the EU has not reached its collective goal of setting aside .7% of Gross National Income (GNI) for development aid.

The Visegrad states fall well below this goal, as well as below the less ambitious target set for countries who had joined the EU after 2002 (as all four Visegrad states did). The target for these countries was .33% of GNI, whereas all Visegrad states had reached between .12%-.14% in 2016.

So here too is an area of potential compromise: EU countries in general and Visegrad countries in particular could strive harder to reach their development assistance goals as part of an effort to improve living conditions in countries that currently experience high levels of emigration. But it should be remembered that development aid doesn’t end wars.

Can member states work together?

Looking at the migration policy proposed by the Visegrad states in Budapest, its possible to identify at least three areas where compromises should be possible:

1.) Provide additional means of applying for asylum from outside of the EU

2.) Continue to secure EU borders while supplying assistance for identification and registration of people seeking asylum at entry points to the EU

3.) Increase development aid, for instance, by getting closer to Official Development Assistance goals.

Interestingly, the viable parts of Visegrad’s migration platform all point to one thing: more money. There’s no doubt that providing more financial support up and down the asylum system can make a difference in how well the EU handles migration and asylum. But is it enough to replace the human aspect of accepting people into societies?

At the end of the day, no matter how much funding is offered and how many restrictions are applied, there are numerous people that are truly entitled to protection under laws agreed to in Europe for over half of a century, many of whom are already here. Increasing funds to prevent people from coming might be an area both sides can agree on, but it cannot possibly represent more than a partial solution to the current standoff over people already here and waiting for help.

 

Sources and Further Reading
Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Republic? MV
Relocation: Commission launches infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Press Release, European Commission. June 2017.
Pending Case: Slovakia v. Council. Info-Curia, European Court of Justice.
Thirteenth Report on Resettlement and Relocation, European Commission, June 2017
MFA statement on the European Commission’s decision to launch infringement procedures against Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 2017
Interview with Andrej Babis.  Parlamentní listy, July 2017.
Viktor Orbán’s answers to questions from audience members after his speech at the Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp. (Speech Transcript) Hungarian Government, July 2016
Joint Statement by the Prime Ministers of the V4 Countries on Migration, Visegrad Group, July 2017
Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR
States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967
Protocol, UNHCR
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN
Questions & Answers: the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Press Release, European Commission, 2016
Frontex to Get Budget Hike After Refugee Failures, EUobserver, 2015
EU unveils more measures to help Italy deal with Migrant Crises, Financial Times, July 2017
Council conclusions on annual report 2017 on EU development aid targets, European Commission, May 2017
Header image via Poland MFA on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2uumbVB (CC BY-NC 2.0)