More than a million migrants and refugees escaped to Europe in 2015, creating divisions between the European Union member states over how to best deal with the crisis. The European Commission designed a quota system to distribute refugees among the member states, using criteria such as the size of the population, GDP, unemployment rates, and the number of asylum applications received in the past. The mandatory quota proposal has strained relations between western, eastern and central European member states because some countries have faced a disproportionate burden. While western European states such as Germany have accepted a large number of refugees, eastern European states are reluctant to share the burden.
The mandatory quota strategy continues to be met with much resistance in the Baltics. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain among the most vocal opponents of quotas for accepting refugees.
Estonia has agreed to accept up to 550 asylum seekers over the next two years as part of the EU effort. Estonian citizens have expressed concern over accepting a large number of refugees, given Estonia’s considerably smaller population of 1.3 million people, approximately 30 percent of whom are Russian speaking. Estonia witnessed several anti-immigrant rallies over the summer, followed by a 24-hour rally in October outside of the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament. The rally, organized by a number of Estonia’s right-wing parties, including the European National Front, the Conservative People’s Party, and the People’s Party of Unity, called for stricter EU border controls and a national referendum on whether Estonia should accept the EU quota of refugees. The Estonian government proposed that in light of the country’s relatively small population, instead of accepting the required number of refugees the EC suggested, they would accept people on a voluntary basis.
The mandatory quota proposal also sparked demonstrations in Latvia’s capital, Riga, where the divided communities of Latvians and ethnic Russians united in opposition to allowing more refugees to enter the country. Latvian political parties are divided on the issue. The nationalist-conservative National Alliance and the centrist Union of Greens and Farmers do not support the decision to admit additional refugees. On the other hand, the leading party of the coalition, the center-right Unity, warned that refusing to admit refugees could have negative consequences for Latvia’s economy and security in the future. The Latvian government has adopted a tentative action plan to admit up to 776 refugees, which would place them in a center until their status is determined. Only afterward would they be permitted to integrate into Latvian society. At the European Council meeting in Brussels on October 16, former Latvian Prime Minister Straujuma announced that Latvia supports strengthening the EU’s external border and the development of a repatriation policy for persons who are not judged to be refugees.
Lithuania has agreed to accept 1,105 refugees from the Middle East and Africa over the next two years. Lithuanian officials are open to discussing the acceptance of more refugees, but only on a voluntary basis. President Grybauskaite first spoke out against Brussels’ proposal for Lithuania to take in 780 people, calling the plan “unjust” and an “inappropriate way of solving the problem of refugees.” Initially, she announced that in taking the country’s population and GDP into consideration, Lithuania would be able to accept up to 250 people. In late November, the Lithuanian parliament passed legislation that defines regulations of refugee resettlement in the country. According to the regulation, the Government will make decisions on resettling refugees in Lithuania, and the Migration Department will be tasked with processing individual applications.
Not all political leaders in the Baltics are opposed to taking more refugees. Estonia’s President Toomas Ilves criticized the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and praised German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. Nonetheless, Germany is accepting record numbers of migrants, while its European neighbors are fighting to keep them out. If the Baltic countries don’t do their fair share to help Germany address its refugee challenges, they run the risk that Germans and others in Europe will conclude that they are ‘free riders’—happy to enjoy the benefits of a united Europe, but unwilling to pay their share of the costs.