* More than two years of battles weaken unity in the bloc
* Court ruling may give new momentum to talks on asylum reform
* EU executive says “time to implement solidarity in full”
* Slovak government says new type of solidarity mechanism needed (Adds Commision reaction,)
By Michele Sinner
SEPTEMBER 6, 2017 / 10:06 AM
LUXEMBOURG, Sept 6 (Reuters) - The European Union’s highest court dismissed complaints on Wednesday by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, upholding Brussels’ right to force member states to take in asylum seekers.
In the latest twist to a dispute that broke out two years ago when more than one million migrants poured across the Mediterranean, the European Court of Justice found that the EU was entitled to order national governments to take in quotas of mainly Syrian refugees relocated from Italy and Greece.
“The court dismisses the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the provisional mechanism for the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers,” the Luxembourg-based court said, adding it rejected the complaints “in their entirety”.
“The mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate.”
The programme set up by the executive European Commission was approved by majority vote of member states in the face of opposition from formerly communist countries in the east who said their societies could not absorb mainly Muslim immigrants.
It provided for the relocation of up to 120,000 people, but only about 25,000 have so far been moved. A further programme for resettling people directly from outside the EU has also struggled to hit targets for taking in asylum-seekers.
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos tweeted: “Time to work in unity and implement solidarity in full.” The Commission’s chief spokesman, however, denied a report that the executive would propose a new round of 40,000 relocations.
It is unclear how far Brussels many try to force eastern states to take refugees, many of whom themselves are reluctant to settle in the poorer, ex-Soviet bloc. However, countries like Germany and Italy which are housing large numbers have said the easterners are jeopardising western-funded EU subsidies if they go on refusing, adding to deep strains in the bloc as it deals with Britain’s imminent exit and a still limping economy.
“The quota system does not work, so the court decision is, perhaps, irrelevant at the moment,” Slovakia’s Economy Minister Peter Ziga told reporters.
He said a new mechanism was needed though the problem was not as grave as arrivals had declined.
“I think the European Commission will find a way to solve this problem,” Ziga added.
Eastern leaders say the bloc should control its borders better to crack down on illegal immigration -- something Brussels says it has succeeded in doing in the past two years.
The EU has taken in more than 1.7 million people from the Middle East and Africa since 2014. But, after a mass influx in 2015, numbers have gone down steadily following actions last year that all but closed the route from Turkey to Greece and from Greece to the Balkans and northern Europe. The EU has also increased support for Libya to curb arrivals in Italy.
The eastern EU states say they can send equipment and border guards to the bloc’s external frontiers in solidarity.
Hungary and Poland have refused to host a single person under the 2015 sharing scheme, while Slovakia and the Czech Republic have each taken in only a dozen or so.
Western EU states, including Germany, which took in the vast majority of the people who made it into the bloc and which will holds a parliamentary election on Sept. 24, say the easterners cannot be exempted from showing solidarity.
While the EU has sought in vain to come up with a compromise, the court ruling may just force Brussels’ hand.
It is a delicate balancing act as putting such a thorny issue to a vote, and possibly passing a migration reform despite opposition from several states, would cause even more bad blood.
“If we push it through above their heads, they will use it in their anti-EU propaganda at home,” another EU diplomat said of Poland and Hungary, where the nationalist-minded governments are embroiled in disputes with Brussels over democratic rules.
“But the arrivals are low, we have it more or less under control, so we have to get back to the solidarity mechanism.” (Additional reporting and writing in Brussels by Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Angus MacSwan)