By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU's top court is expected on Wednesday to dismiss a challenge by eastern European countries against taking in refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East, a dispute that has divided the bloc.
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) is to rule around 0730 GMT (3.30 a.m ET) on a challenge to EU immigration policy launched by Slovakia and Hungary, and backed by Poland.
EU diplomats expect a resounding defeat of the challenge and that such a ruling could lead to resuming EU talks over an emergency mechanism for exceptionally high arrivals of refugees and migrants.
The issue has been stalled for more than two years and divided the bloc at a time it faces Brexit, security threats and international challenges.
"We expect a clear line from the court. We've been waiting for this to revive talks about the EU asylum system reform," a senior EU diplomat said.
The challengers from the EU's east say the obligatory relocation of asylum-seekers arriving in frontline countries like Greece and Italy via the Mediterranean undermines their sovereignty and endangers their homogenous societies.
They have said the bloc should instead control its external borders better to crack down on illegal immigration.
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 the 2016 deal that closed the route from Turkey to Greece, and with the EU stepping up support for Libya to curb arrivals in Italy.
Arrivals in Italy from Libya, the main immigration route to Europe this year, dropped by more than a half in July from a year earlier.
The eastern EU states say they can send equipment and border guards to the bloc's external frontiers but do not want to accept refugees because of security risks after a raft of Islamist attacks in Europe.
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.
Even the countries concerned are preparing to lose in the court following an early recommendation to the justices in July.
"We are prepared for a repeat of July," a senior Slovak diplomat said. "We will react by making clear we respect the court ruling. We will also say we still think that's not the way to solve the problem but we'll say we'll go on with relocation."
Western EU states, including Germany, which took in the vast majority of the people who made it into the bloc and which will hold parliamentary elections on Sept. 24, say the easterners cannot be exempted from showing solidarity.
Italy has been calling for taking away from the reluctant easterners some of the generous EU funding they use to catch up with the wealthier West as punishment for their stance on migration.
While the EU has sought in vain come up with a compromise, the court ruling may just force its hand.
"What you hear more of now is that eventually we may just do it with a majority vote as long as there is broad political backing behind this majority," the senior EU diplomat said.
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 quick to criticize the bloc.
"But the arrivals are low, we have it more or less under control, so we have to get back to the solidarity mechanism."
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)