During the recent weeks and months the EU has become consumed by the events of the refugee crisis unfolding both on Europe’s external and internal borders.

Regrettably, the ongoing humanitarian tragedy has been reduced to the mere question of refugee quotas – and often at the expense of solutions that would address the cause of the problem rather than just its consequences.

When on Tuesday, September 22, EU interior and home affairs ministers met in Brussels to finally approve the Commission’s proposal to relocate some 120,000 refugees currently located in Southern Europe, very few people welcomed the move as one that would be decisive in Europe’s response to the crisis.

Furthermore, failing to address the core of the problem, the Tuesday vote created – or rather highlighted – another one. The traditional consensual nature of the EU’s decision-making has been seriously compromised by the lack of overall agreement between those in favour – the majority of countries – and those opposed to the mandatory refugee quotas.

The Visegrad Four belonged to the small group of states that opposed the quotas from the very beginning. Their stance has come at a price. The vote on Tuesday is particularly damaging for the V4, not least because it has undermined the unity of the block.

Despite its numerous declarations of support to the common position on the issue of refugees – also emphasized during the Visegrad Group Summit in Prague on September 4 as well as during the last minute meeting of the V4 Ministers on the eve of the vote – Warsaw decided to vote in favour of the quotas and against the common position previously agreed upon by all four Visegrad countries.

This move took other V4 members by surprise. It raised doubts regarding whether the cooperation in the current format will survive and to what extent Poland desires to remain part of the group.

Despite the meeting of the V4 leaders in Brussels ahead of the EU Summit on Wednesday and despite them having agreed on a common position on the migration situation, it remains to be seen whether the V4 can not only talk the talk but equally walk the walk, and whether the reassurances of Poland’s PM Kopacz regarding the unity of the block will translate into action.

On top of that, the vote in the Council on Tuesday has also meant a significant, even if temporary, loss of credibility of the V4 countries vis-à-vis their EU partners. This is particularly true for Slovakia. A traditionally reliable partner, it has put up a resistance for which it has been criticised vehemently.

Following the events, the President of the S&D group in the European Parliament has proposed to suspend SMER – Slovakia’s governing party – from the Party of European Socialists. A number of EU politicians – including the Belgian PM and the French President – have hinted that countries rebelling against certain common European values should either reconsider their EU membership or be penalised.

Leave aside the fact that Slovakia is a full member of the EU – something that certain older EU members are yet to get used to – and hereby is entitled to occasional dissent without facing threats and consequences that surpass the scope of the existing remedies in the EU Treaties.Slovakia, and the rest of the Visegrad Group, have failed in public diplomacy to effectively communicate messages in a manner that would be both consistent with the demands of the domestic audience and not perceived as obstructive by other EU countries.

What could have the V4 done differently?

The V4 countries could have changed their strategy in two ways.

First of all, notwithstanding the public opinion on the issue of refugees, the V4 leaders should have shown more pragmatism and less scaremongering. It certainly does not imply that being pragmatic means automatically abandoning one’s principles. The main argument against accepting asylum seekers was based on the apparent lack of cultural proximity. But the V4 demonstrated very little enthusiasm in proposing a plan that, while accepting a fair share of refugees, would place an emphasis on the need of for full integration into the local communities.

By developing a rigorous national or regional programme of integration for asylum seekers, the countries would address the concerns of the locals. At the same time, they would be able to participate in the quota system and fend off criticism from other EU leaders.

Second, the emphasis on the integration of the asylum seekers in local communities would allow the V4 countries to focus on contributing to structural changes, which would ensure that Europe is better prepared to both avert and handle future crises. In exchange for agreeing to partake in the mandatory quota system, albeit within the conditions as defined above, the V4 countries could have gained a strong position to argue for strengthening the EU common foreign policy. If all EU member states are to be asked to deal with the consequences caused either by actions of others or by the lack of coordination at the EU level, then surely all EU countries should be involved in the policy-making from the beginning.

A categorical refusal of the position without proposing any relevant or viable alternative is bound to be met with skepticism and rejection from the rest of the EU. Taking a stance that proves to be unpopular with most of Europe’s leaders requires substantiating it with an easily understandable reasoning.

As mentioned above, the V4 leaders met on Wednesday, September 23 in Brussels to consolidate their position ahead of the Summit set for the same day. They agreed, among other things, on the fact that “an effective management of the root causes of migration flows must be the stepping stone of EU approach to the current situation”. They expressed readiness to play their part in achieving this goal.

While the common position was well intended and, for once, constructive, it came a little too late – such an argument should have been made from the very beginning, in order to balance out and complement the V4’s rejection of refugee quotas.

Self-defeating strategy of reactive politics

The difficult position of the V4 leaders did not inevitably mean there was little or no choice but to reject the quotas outright. In fact, should they have pursued a more constructive –as opposed to reactive – approach to the issue, they could, on the one hand, have avoided a friction within the V4 and the EU regarding the criticism levied against them. On the other hand, they could also have contributed to development of the EU-level policy domain that is currently underdeveloped, which the V4 would actually benefit from – the common EU foreign policy.

It is true, thus, that the old EU member states are yet to get comfortable with the idea of having to share responsibilities with these countries, whose voice is becoming increasingly louder as their economic confidence grows. But it is also equally true that the V4 countries have not lived up to their potential to perceive the EU beyond their national and regional interests, which is regrettable both from the V4 as well as the EU perspective. 

This text was co-published with CEPI – Central European Policy Institute