Austria announced it would step up controls along its southern borders on Tuesday (16 February), edging closer to Eastern European member states in their defiance of Germany’s push for an EU solution to the migrant crisis.
The measures will be implemented at 12 existing checkpoints along frontiers with Italy, Slovenia and Hungary to slow down the influx, Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said.
“There will be different structural measures from containers to further barriers,” similar to the short mesh fence recently set up at Austria’s main border crossing with Slovenia at Spielfeld, she added.
The announcement is a new blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants to promote a deal with Turkey at an EU summit to tackle the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
Austria still supports the plan, but says progress has been sluggish in the face of the huge flow, which shows no sign of abating.
Last week, the Alpine country told Macedonia to be ready to “completely stop” the flow of migrants across its southern border from Greece and said it would do the same on its own frontiers within months.
In 2015, over a million people reached Europe’s shores – nearly half of them Syrians fleeing a civil war that has claimed more than 260,000 lives.
“We are preparing Plan B not because we want it, but because the implementation of a European solution is too slow,” Chancellor Werner Faymann told Austrian media Tuesday.
Vienna has joined the so-called “Visegrad Four” – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — who want to close off the refugees’ route through the Balkans from Greece, which they accuse of failing to protect the EU’s borders.
On Tuesday, Croatia dispatched dispatched extra policemen to its eastern frontier to “toughen up border controls” with Serbia in a bid to stop the flow of migrants.
‘Put the brakes on’
Merkel strongly criticised Austria’s proposal yesterday: “Do we really want to give up already and close the Greek-Macedonian-Bulgarian border, with all the consequences this would have for Greece and the European Union as a whole?”
Austrian controls will be increased at checkpoints in the states of Carinthia, Styria, Burgenland as well as Tyrol, which shares a border with Italy.
“The aim is to secure the order and stability of our country. That’s why we put the brakes on,” Mikl-Leitner stressed.
On Wednesday, the government also plans to create a daily cap on the number of migrants allowed into the country at Spielfeld, she added.
As a result, the Austrian government expects the migrant flow along the Balkan route to likely be diverted from Slovenia to Italy.
“We need to prepare for that,” the interior minister said.
Austria has taken an increasingly hardline stance, after receiving 90,000 asylum claims in 2015 — one of the bloc’s highest rates per capita.
Vienna already warned last month it would limit this year’s number of asylum seekers to 37,500 and deport at least 12,500 people, although it has not specified what it plans to do once the cap has been reached.
‘Coalition of the willing’
Tuesday’s announcement came hours after Greece – the migrants’ entry point into the EU after they arrive from Turkey – announced that four of its five long-delayed migrant registration centres were “ready to function and welcome refugees”.
Athens faces effective suspension from the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone if it does not improve border controls within a three-month deadline imposed by Brussels last week.
But Defence Minister Panos Kammenos hit out at the ultimatum on Tuesday, saying: “The game of pushing responsibility onto Greece is now over.”
The vast majority of migrants enter the EU thought Italy and Greece, where they should register, but poor controls mean most are able to continue their journeys to northern Europe.
To halt the chaotic situation, Germany advocates a plan under which transit country Turkey would seal its borders and then fly refugees to Europe where they would be settled under an EU quota system.
Ahead of Thursday’s full gathering of the EU’s 28 members, Merkel and Faymann will host talks with nine EU leaders and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Brussels to discuss the bid.
The German chancellor said last week there was “a group of countries” – dubbed the “coalition of the willing” by German media – that may accept more refugees if Turkey to tackle illegal immigration.