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European Union: Court of Justice Rules against Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary for Noncompliance with Migrant Relocation Obligations

(June 5, 2020) On April 2, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) in Luxembourg issued a judgment in Joined Cases C-715/17, C-718/17 and C-719/17, European Commission v. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, finding these three countries in noncompliance with the temporary mechanism for the relocation of applicants for international protection and thus in violation of their obligations under European Union law. (Judgment of the Court (Third Chamber) of 2 April 2020, European Commission v. Republic of Poland and Others.)

Overview of the Proceedings before the Court

Due to the intensified warfare in the Middle East in 2015, Europe saw a drastic increase in the number of asylum seekers, precipitating crises in Greece and Italy. On September 22, 2015, the Council of the EU adopted Decision 2015/1601 on “establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece.” The mandatory decision addressed an urgent need for the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other countries in the EU in accordance with the established quotas for each member state. (Council of the EU Decision 2015/1601, § 17.)

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia opposed the decision.

Initially, Poland opposed the decision as well, but later it changed its approach. Furthermore, Poland and the Czech Republic did not fulfill their obligations under Decision 2015/1523 of September 14, 2015, on “establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and of Greece,” which stipulated that 40,000 asylum seekers would be voluntarily relocated, and Hungary took no actions to implement the decision. (Council of the EU Decision 2015/1523, art. 4.)

Hungary and Slovakia challenged the decision of the Council of the EU in court, arguing that the ministers’ vote was divergent from an earlier commitment on behalf of the EU leaders. However, on September 6, 2017, the Grand Chamber of the Court ruled that the relocation mechanisms of both countries were legal.

According to a report of the European Commission, the Czech Republic accepted only 12 out of the pledged 50 migrants, while Hungary and Poland did not submit any numbers to the European Commission for either the relocation or accommodation of any migrants in accordance with the allocated quotas.

From 2015 through 2017, the European Commission multiple times called all three countries to uphold their obligations to accept migrants as mandated by the quotas. Following the countries’ continued failure to comply, on June 13, 2017, the European Commission made a decision to take the matter to the European Court of Justice despite the expiration of the relocation mechanism’s two-year term with only 31,503 people relocated. The complaint was submitted to the European Court of Justice on December 7, 2017.

Eventually, Slovakia offered temporary shelter to more than 1,200 people who filed for asylum in neighboring Austria and, consequently, was not sued by the European Commission.

Defendants’ Arguments and Court’s Response

All three countries employed several lines of legal defense to make their case.

Primarily, they questioned the admissibility of legal action against them for their failure to fulfill their obligations because the obligations expired on September 17, 2017, and September 26, 2017. (Arguments of the Parties § 47.) In addition, Hungary and Poland claimed that actions for failure to fulfill obligations are inadmissible as the majority of member states did not fulfill the same obligations. Therefore, the actions of the European Commission infringed the principle of equal treatment. (Arguments of the Parties §§ 72 & 73.) Hungary questioned the adequacy of the time allocated for replying during the pre-litigation proceedings (Arguments of the Parties § 83) and the clarity of the definition of the alleged infringement by the Commission during pre-litigation (Arguments of the Parties § 86 & 87). The Czech Republic additionally claimed that the European Commission’s application defining the Czech Republic’s failure to fulfill the obligations lacked precision and consistency. (Arguments of the Parties § 111.) The Court rejected all the arguments that were presented. (Arguments of the Parties § 123.)

Besides challenging the admissibility of legal action, Poland and Hungary invoked article 72, section 134 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), read in conjunction with article 4(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). Article 72 stipulates that “[t]his Title shall not affect the exercise of the responsibilities incumbent upon Member States with regard to the maintenance of law and order and the safeguarding of internal security,” meaning that the implementation of the relocation obligation would endanger public order; hence, member states can derogate from the EU obligations. The Court found the argument insufficient because it observed that other mechanisms were available to these countries in pursuing their public safety objectives without failing to meet their EU obligations. (Findings of the Court § 169.)

Moreover, none of the three states took sufficient actions to determine what threats the asylum seekers actually posed and thus failed to “establish any direct relationship with a particular case to justify suspending the implementation of or even ceasing to implement its obligations.” (Findings of the Court § 160.)

The Czech Republic claimed that the relocation mechanism was malfunctioning and ineffective. (Arguments of the Parties § 173.) The Court rejected this claim, stating that every member state had had an opportunity to improve the mechanism during the implementation process. (Findings of the Court § 182.)

In conclusion, the Court ordered all three defendants, in addition to bearing their own costs, to pay the costs the European Commission incurred in the cases. (Findings of the Court §§ 5–7.)

Reactions to the Court’s Ruling

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on April 2, 2020, stated that “[a]ll member states were required to participate in a temporary relocation scheme. Hungary, Poland and Czechia did not and today the court found that, as a consequence, they did not fulfil their obligations. This ruling is important. It is referring to the past, but it will give us guidance to the future.” However, the governments of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic expressed their disagreement with the Court’s ruling. While not arguing the legality of the judgment, they justified their deviation from the EU requirements on the basis of their political needs.

The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, responded to the judgment in a statement published by the state news agency, CTK, which said that what was important was not that they had lost the case but that they didn’t have to pay anything beyond the litigation costs. He further stated that “[i]t is essential that we will not accept any migrants and that, meanwhile, the quota system was canceled. And that is mainly thanks to us.”

A similar position was expressed by Piotr Mueller, spokesman for the Polish government, who said that the verdict “won’t have any practical importance.” According to the Polish government, “[t]he refusal to comply with the relocation mechanism was dictated by the need to protect Poland’s internal security and defend it against uncontrolled migration. The most important goal of government policy is to ensure the safety of our citizens.”

Updated June 9, 2020