European countries on the route used by more than a million migrants to reach the continent last year agreed on Saturday (24 September) to focus on the more easily achievable ways of preventing another influx than the big issues the EU is divided over, Austria said.
Vienna has convened a summit of nations along the Balkan route in the hope of pressuring European Union member states into taking faster action over the migration crisis that has caused deep divisions in the bloc and shaken up national politics.
“We are focusing on where we can achieve something and implementing that more forcefully,” Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern told a news conference after the meeting.
Austria and its Balkan neighbours infuriated Athens by jointly introducing border restrictions in February that largely shut down that route, leaving thousands stranded on Greek territory and undermining German calls for united EU action.
Tensions reached a boiling point between the European states worst affected by the refugee crisis ahead of a meeting of Balkan states in Vienna today (24 February), as new figures showed no let-up in the influx of asylum seekers.
Tensions with Germany and Greece have since eased, partly because a deal between the European Union and Turkey has slowed the flow of migrants into Greece. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Greek counterpart attended the talks.
Failure to agree a deal with Turkey at today’s summit on migration will condemn Greece to becoming the refugee camp of Europe, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans warned on Wednesdays (16 March).
Working towards fully implementing that deal, including the deadlocked issue of visa-free travel for Turks, was one of the three main goals agreed on at Saturday’s talks, Kern said.
Turkey analysts said today (22 September) that the lifting of the visa requirement for Turkish citizens will likely not materialise before the year’s end, if not in early 2017.
Others included providing extra staff for the EU border force Frontex, starting with ensuring member states meet commitments already made – which has not yet happened – he added.
Kern said the countries hoped that progress on some of these issues would help unblock disagreements at the heart of the immigration problem.
Participants said they also wanted to work faster towards deals modeled on the agreement with Turkey, with countries including Niger and Egypt, as well as deals with Pakistan and Afghanistan that would clear the way for deporting more migrants from Greece, where thousands live in crowded camps like one that caught fire last week.
There has been tension between Merkel, who let in a million people last year, and ex-communist eastern states that have refused to take in asylum-seekers.
“The redistribution issue was discussed, but I am convinced that we will make progress on that when the first two things are solved, namely building up border protection (and) building appropriate support structures in countries of origin,” Kern said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, however, said preparations should also be made for a less happy outcome.
“We must have a second plan for the eventuality that the EU-Turkey deal, for whatever reason, collapses,” he told a news conference. “When the migrants descend on us and trouble arrives it will be too late to reach for blueprints, for fences, for physical barriers, for new police and soldiers.”
A German tabloid reported yesterday (9 May) that the EU was considering giving the billions it promised to Turkey to Greece instead, in case the deal agreed with Ankara to stem the refugee flows collapses.
‘Giant refugee city”
The European Union should set up a “giant refugee city” on the Libyan coast and process asylum claims there from refugees arriving from other African countries, Orbán said.
He insisted that the European Union’s external borders should be under “total control” – including the Mediterranean border, in which Libya was instrumental.
Around 6,500 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya on Monday (30 August), the Italian coastguard said, in one of its busiest days of life-saving in recent years.
Libya has a government backed by the UN, but has been in political chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and has splintered into rival armed factions.
He said Libya and Egypt were both important partners.
A boat carrying up to 450 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean off Egypt’s north coast on yesterday (21 September), drowning 42 people and prompting a search operation that rescued 163 passengers, officials said.
“The EU needs a new Libya policy,” he told a press briefing in Vienna. “Libya is a region whose shores can be used to set sail for Europe because no state exists there.”
Libya’s unity should be preserved, with a new Libyan government set up and brought into a cooperation agreement, he said.
“Unless we preserve Libya as one and stabilise it we cannot create the gigantic refugee city by Libya’s Mediterranean coast,” he said.
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