One of the causes driving the Brexit movement -- the desire in Britain to quit the European Union -- is fear over immigration and refugees. Backers of the Leave campaign, whose hopes may come to fruition at a referendum later this week, claim that the freedom of movement allowed in much of the continent, as well as proposals to accommodate an influx of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere, are simply unacceptable.
Ironically, that's an argument for which the leader of the country slated to assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union, an upper body in the E.U.'s legislature, may feel sympathy.
The job of the presidency rotates every six months among E.U. member states. Next week, Slovakia will replace the Netherlands. And its prime minister, Robert Fico, has been one of the more outspoken European leaders on the subject of Muslim immigration.
“Islam has no place in Slovakia," Fico told reporters in May. He warned that "migrants change the character of our country," and declared he wouldn't allow such change to affect his nation.
Fico has made similar pronouncements over the past year, as Syria's escalating humanitarian crisis spilled over into Europe, bringing an unprecedented wave of migrants and refugees to the continent's borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel bucked popular opinion and welcomed refugees in 2015 -- with roughly 1 million migrants arriving in Germany -- but her decision fueled widespread ire, and gave momentum to her country's Euroskeptic far-right.
Fico, like other politicians from Eastern and Central Europe, has argued both that his country has no obligation to house refugees and that, unlike the United States and leading Western European nations, had little experience of Muslim immigration.
"Since Slovakia is a Christian country, we cannot tolerate an influx of 300,000-400,000 Muslim immigrants who would like to start building mosques all over our land and trying to change the nature, culture and values of the state," he said in January 2015. (Never mind that Slovakia's present Muslim population is a fraction of a percentage point of its population and that no Brussels policy maker expects it to accommodate a particularly large number of asylum seekers.)
After some Muslim migrants were implicated in a spate of attacks on women in public spaces in the German city of Cologne around New Year's Eve, Fico declared this January that he would "never make a voluntary decision that would lead to the formation of a unified Muslim community in Slovakia." He went on: "Multiculturalism is a fiction. Once you let migrants in, you can face such problems."
Fico has indicated that the burden to deal with the consequences of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa lie further west and mocked Germany for treating Muslim immigrants as a “protected species.”
"I only have one question: Who bombed Libya?" Fico said in August, referring to the 2011 NATO intervention against the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. "Who created problems in North Africa? Slovakia? No." A spokesman from Slovakia's Interior Ministry suggested last year that, if the country would take in Syrian refugees, they would have to be Christian.
Though a veteran center-left politician, Fico's anti-immigrant populism is in part seen as an attempt to head off far-right politics within Slovakia. But it hasn't impressed European policy-makers and officials who are still working to push through a deal that will establish mandatory quotas of asylum seekers each E.U. member state would have to accommodate.
“I don’t think anyone is very enthusiastic about the Slovak presidency,” one Brussels official told Politico Europe. “We are in the middle of a huge reform on migration, and we’re almost over. How are we going to be led by a country which will torpedo any plan on migration?”
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