EU court rejects Hungary, Slovakia appeal in refugee case

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2015 file photo, a man walks by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The European Court of Justice on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 rejected efforts by Hungary and Slovakia to stay out of a European Union scheme to relocate refugees. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The European Union’s top court on Wednesday rejected legal action by Hungary and Slovakia to avoid accepting refugees under an EU scheme, a decision seen as a victory for countries bearing the greatest burden of Europe’s migrant wave.

In a long-awaited ruling, the European Court of Justice said that it had “dismissed in its entirety the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary.”

EU countries agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy over two years, but only around 27,700 people have been moved so far. Hungary and Slovakia were seeking to have the legally binding move annulled.

Hungary and Poland have refused to take part in the scheme, while so far Slovakia has accepted only a handful of refugees from Greece.

The refugee scheme was adopted by the EU’s “qualified majority” vote — around two thirds — and the ECJ held that this was appropriate, saying the EU “was not required to act unanimously” on this decision.

The court also noted that the small number of relocations so far is due to a series of factors that the EU could not really have foreseen, including “the lack of cooperation on the part of certain member states.”

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he respected the court decision, but that his government still does not like the relocation scheme, which some see as a system of quotas imposed on countries by unelected EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

“We fully respect the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” Fico told reporters, adding that his country’s negative stance on the relocation plan “has not changed at all.”

Fico said the scheme was a temporary solution. He says he believes his country doesn’t face any sanctions from the EU over its stance. EU officials say the relocation of eligible asylum-seekers in Greece and Italy will continue even after the scheme ends.

Germany’s foreign minister welcomed the ruling. Sigmar Gabriel said he expects all EU countries to implement the decision “without further hesitation.”

Gabriel said the ruling confirms that the solidarity measure approved by EU leaders is not just in keeping with European values but also adheres fully to European law. He said “solidarity is not a one-way street.”

Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ruling, saying Hungary and Slovakia had been trying to turn their countries into “refugee-free zones.”

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an advocate for asylum-seekers, urged Hungary to give refugees an opportunity to make their case for asylum.

“The lesson of the verdict is that helping people fleeing war and terror is truly a common responsibility for Europe,” the group said. “Hungary needs to respect the decision of the EU court.”

Besides Hungary’s legal arguments against the EU plan, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has also made the case and the issue the focal point of its political activities since early 2015 and ahead of parliamentary elections expected in April 2018.

Hungary’s position is that only its elected leaders should be able to decide who is allowed into the country. Orban has said that the large influx of mainly Muslim immigrants threatens Europe’s and Hungary’s cultural identity.

From mid-September 2015, Hungary closed off its southern border first with Serbia and later with Croatia, with a fence protected by razor wire. The fences have mostly stopped migrants from passing through Hungary on their way to Western Europe but Hungary has also greatly reduced the chances for asylum-seekers to submit applications for protection in the country.