Brussels: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland likely broke EU law by refusing to take in asylum-seekers at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, the top EU court's legal advisor said Thursday.
The opinion issued by the European Court of Justice's advocate general, Eleanor Sharpston, does not determine what the court will end up deciding in the ongoing case, but her advice is often influential.
"By refusing to comply with the provisional and time-limited mechanism for the mandatory relocation of applicants for international protection, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have failed to fulfil their obligations under EU law," she found, according to a statement given by the court.
Poland hit out at the assessment, with a government spokesman saying "the most important objective... is to ensure the security of citizens," according to the country's PAP news agency.
Warsaw acted "in the interest of Polish citizens and in the defence against uncontrolled migration," said the spokesman, Piotr Mueller.
In 2015, as Europe struggled with an influx of asylum-seekers, many of them from war-torn Syria, the European Union announced a temporary mechanism to relocate thousands of refugees from the hardest-hit countries of Italy and Greece to other parts of the bloc.
But the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland refused, triggering a complaint against them by the European Commission.
Sharpston decided the three countries' arguments invoking security concerns were insufficient because they still had the right to bar individuals deemed a threat, and a "spirit of mutual trust and cooperation must prevail".
In a sharply worded conclusion, the advocate general said that for some member states to duck their obligations towards EU solidarity because they viewed the decisions as "unwelcome or unpopular is a dangerous first step towards the breakdown of the orderly and structured society governed by the rule of law".
"The principle of solidarity necessarily sometimes implies accepting burden-sharing," her opinion stated.
In the end, a 2016 deal struck between the EU and Turkey greatly reduced the number of asylum-seekers reaching Europe.
Turkish authorities stepped up their efforts to prevent crossings to Greece in return for billions of euros in EU aid money.
But, while the urgency has diminished, the principle of relocating refugees and asylum-seekers remains important in the EU as it struggles to come up with a workable new system to distribute migrants among the member states.
Work on a revised system has stalled because of reticence by eastern member states.
In September, four countries -- France, Germany, Italy and Malta -- reached an agreement between themselves for the relocation of asylum-seekers, hoping it would serve as the nucleus for a wider, permanent arrangement for the EU.
But resistance is limiting its uptake, notwithstanding the relocation to France and Germany of some of the 100 migrants who disembarked on Italy's island of Sicily on Wednesday from a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) operated ship that rescued them in the Mediterranean.