Austria enraged the European Commission yesterday (18 February) by insisting on capping the number of refugees it takes in. But Chancellor Werner Faymann said he also heard “a lot of understanding” during the summit dinner.
Austria announced on Tuesday (16 February) it would step up controls along its southern borders and cap the daily number of asylum demands at 80.
In a clear show of exasperation at the Austrian move, announced unilaterally on the eve of the summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “National solos are not to be recommended.”
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos sent the complaint in a letter to Austria’s Interior Minister, the increasingly controversial Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
“Such a policy would be plainly incompatible with Austria’s obligations under European and international law,” Avramopoulos said in a copy of the letter obtained by AFP.
Avramopoulos cited the European Convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
“Austria has a legal obligation to accept any asylum application that is made on its territory or at its border,” the letter said. “I would urge you to reconsider the unilateral measures which you are proposing.”
The refugee crisis features high in the agenda of the EU summit which started yesterday. What had been expected to be a relatively calm discussion on implementing the bloc’s tentative strategy to curb the number of refugees entering Europe turned into what one diplomat called a blazing row with Chancellor Faymann.
Other EU officials said Vienna’s action was tantamount to “giving the finger to the rest of Europe”, and “for the benefit of Austrian tabloids”.
Faymann insisted he did not only hear criticism during the summit dinner: “There was a lot of understanding,” he said.
“We cannot provide all the asylum in Europe.”
Despite the warning from Avramopoulos that the cap would break both EU and international law, Faymann vowed to press ahead with the plan, and said his own lawyers had other views.
Austria’s dispute with its peers is symptomatic of the rifts the massive flow of refugees into Europe has opened within the EU, with member states often ignoring calls from the European Commission to share the burden more evenly, and unilaterally reimposing barriers to movement over their borders.
The leaders issued a statement saying: “The comprehensive strategy agreed in December will only bring results if all its elements are pursued jointly and if the institutions and the member states act together and in full coordination.”
Austria had been due to host a pre-summit meeting between Turkey and 11 EU states on Thursday, but that was called off due to a bombing in Ankara – a setback to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes of pressing ahead with the EU-Turkey pact. EU leaders issued a statement condemning the Ankara attack.
Germany, which took in over one million migrants last year, has led efforts to offer money and promise to revive Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks to get Ankara to prevent more people from embarking from its shores for Europe.
“The important statement for me today is that we have not only reaffirmed the EU-Turkey action plan, but we have said it is our priority,” Merkel told reporters.
But many doubt it would work and have pushed towards beefing up border controls along the migration routes, which could eventually lead to tens of thousands of people being stuck in Greece, giving rise to major humanitarian problems in a country already struggling with its own deep financial crisis.
“Merkel is completely isolated on this, she is losing political capital. All the others get increasingly impatient every week. So it’s going to happen this way or another, even though it would mean leaving Greece in the cold,” said one diplomat.
The EU would then need to provide humanitarian assistance to Greece, a possibility already mentioned in the draft conclusions of the 28 leaders’ meetings.
An EU official also warned that countries would tighten borders further by the time leaders meet for their next summit in mid-March.
Four sceptical eastern European members have floated a fallback policy of ring fencing Greece to keep the refugees they expect to land there from proceeding through Macedonia and Bulgaria to other EU countries to the north and west.
The “Plan B” suggested by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not go down well in Brussels and Berlin.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, told a news conference: “We must first avoid a battle among plans A, B and C. It makes no sense at all, as it creates divisions within the European Union.”
The four eastern states, which strongly oppose a German proposal for distributing refugees around the EU, have sought to portray their proposal as another leg of EU strategy, rather than an alternative to seeking an effective deal with Turkey.
Merkel, on arriving at the summit, pledged to press ahead with the EU-Turkey pact despite the cancellation of the planned meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
“I would like the EU-Turkey immigration agenda to be granted priority so that we do everything to implement what has been agreed to protect our outer borders, and also to divide roles with regard to the many refugees coming from Syria,” she said.
One EU diplomat said the influx of migrants must be stemmed by a mid-March EU summit on migration. “Without stemming the flows, there is no hope. By March time will be running out … relying simply on Turkey to deliver is not enough.”