Mar 08, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

The Hungarian veto and the fate of the EU-Turkey deal

On Monday, heads of the European Union member states gathered for yet another summit, attempting to reach an agreement on how to respond to the migration crisis that the EU has been struggling with now for more than a year.

As talks continued into the early hours of Tuesday, reports emerged that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vetoed that part of the proposed EU-Turkey agreement that would have established a mechanism for the direct resettlement of migrants from Turkey to the EU. Striking a deal with Turkey had been the main reason for Monday’s summit, but the points under discussion changed so drastically during the course of the day that the proposal barely resembled the draft that had preceded it.

Going into the meeting, the Turkish side of the negotiations was expected to offer measures to support European Union border security, to curtail the uncontrolled and unmanaged flow of illegal migrants traveling to Europe in return for financial aid from the EU to manage the burden. The Turkish delegation, however, brought a few surprises on Monday. Turkey upped the price by asking for twice as much in financial assistance – an additional 3 billion euro on top of the 3 billion already committed – as well as a relocation plan to take migrants from Turkey to the European Union, visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, and a reopening of negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership.

As the EU Council prepares to meet again on Thursday, Hungary is not the only member opposed to the latest plan.

“The way it played out was that the Turks came here at noon and put on the table a proposal that touches on four, very difficult issue areas,” issues that had not been on the table, said Prime Minister Orbán Monday evening. “That cannot happen,” he said.

By the morning, however, the lengthy summit managed to produce some results. The approved text of the summit document says that the Western Balkans migration route must be brought under control. The migration resettlement scheme, firmly opposed by the Orbán Government and others will not yet go into effect due to a declaration issued by Slovakia and Hungary upholding the right to reject it as well as a similar initiative from Poland.

Hungary had been one of the first and most outspoken proponents of working with Turkey to better manage the migration crisis, but after Monday’s summit, the latest is not encouraging.

The problem is that, as the prime minister has said, “Europe underestimates herself.” Europe failed to muster the will and exercise the power to overcome the crisis on its own. Instead of protecting its own borders, it sought to delegate the task to Turkey. In a collective failure that defies common sense, the continent refused to rally behind the need to defend the Union’s physical borders, and essentially looked instead to contract out to Turkey a border protection service.

“A continent of 500 million can never afford to have its security dependent on a country of 71-something million,” PM Orbán explained in a radio interview last Friday.

“There are 500 million Europeans. That means there are more of us than the Americans and Russians combined. We are one of the most developed economic regions of the world. Our technical tools, development, and financial power makes it possible for us to protect ourselves. So why do we need to beg for protection from a country of seventy-something million instead of us protecting ourselves? No one understands this,” the prime minister said.

Although Hungary had helped initiate the negotiations with Turkey, the prime minister noted that agreements with countries like Turkey that border Europe are important, but these agreements “never replace and never make up for [our] own [self-]protection.”

Europe’s self-protection, as easy as it sounds, depends on an essential element: member states must uphold the obligations they accept when they sign a treaty. The rules of Schengen and the Dublin Protocol regulate migration and border control in the European Union. These rules must be respected. If a member state cannot comply with these rules, the other member states of the European Union should of course help in solidarity, but the rules must be followed. It’s not impossible: Hungary has shown that land borders can be protected. Beyond the EU, Australia has demonstrated for some time that sea borders can also be protected. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

On the question of visa-free travel and moving forward with EU accession talks, the Hungarian standpoint remains that Ukraine should take priority over Turkey.

Prime Minister Orbán’s veto on Monday night night of the mechanism for resettlement of migrants in the EU, a veto backed by others as well, signaled a response to Turkey demanding more on three very difficult issue areas that were sprung on the Council on Monday. Considering the way it was done, it should come as no surprise that the plan was vetoed. An agreement with Turkey should be achieved, however – and President of the European Council Donald Tusk is authorized to continue the negotiations – but it should not be the only thing Europe pursues. If the EU is to have a stronger negotiating position, it must resolve to strengthen its own borders.