Kurz pledges to shield Schengen as border dispute unfolds

Presentation of the programme of activities of the Austrian Presidency by prime minister Sebastian Kurz. [European Parliament]

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz prioritised the protection of the external borders during his country’s EU Presidency stint, in order to safeguard the Schengen area, as a recent deal between Germany’s conservative parties could lead to a resurrection of the bloc’s internal borders.

Increasing security at external borders, fighting irregular migration, working on a more competitive Europe and enhancing cooperation with neighbouring countries are the priorities of the Austrian Presidency of the EU, Kurz said on Tuesday (3 July).

“Over the last year we have come to realise that we as politicians cannot take Europe for granted, rather we have to work hard to preserve this project for peace and stability in Europe,” he told the European Parliament’s plenary session during the presentation of the priorities.

The Presidency’s top priority will be tackling “illegal” migration. “We need to focus more on the safeguarding of our external borders as the prerequisite for a common border-free Europe,” said the Chancellor in a reference to the Schengen border-free area.

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His inaugural address came on the heels of the agreement reached by the ruling German conservative parties to set up centres at the border between Bavaria and Austria.

The deal between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and her Bavarian coalition partner the CSU foresee sending back asylum seekers registered in other countries or, in case there are no agreements signed with these member states, turning people back at the German Austrian border.

As no agreement has been reached between Austria and Germany, Kurz warned that “if Germany introduces internal borders… Austria would have to react”.

He said that his government would give further details on the response later on Tuesday.

The introduction of border checks between Germany and Austria would provoke a similar reaction by Vienna on its borders with Slovenia and Italy, the entry point of most of the refugees registered in the Union.

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But the EU’s top echelons were prudent to comment on the CDU-CSU deal as, for the time being, it helped to keep the coalition government intact in Berlin.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters in Strasbourg that the CDU-CSU proposal  “at first sight, it looks in conformity with EU law but we will study it in greater detail”. He said that he has told the Commission’s legal service to look into it.

Amid the growing dispute among Germany’s coalition partners, between Bavaria and Austria, and Germany and Italy, Kurz said that the “major mission” of his semester chairing the EU Council would be to act as “bridge-builder” to “reduce tensions”.

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To that end, he said he would focus on strengthening the external borders, a shared concern for all affected by the migration challenge.

“You have our full support when it comes to safeguarding external borders,” said European Peoples’ Party leader Manfred Weber, a CSU heavyweight.

No migration crisis

Kurz argued that migration has become a top concern for Europeans. But many MEPs disagreed with him.

“I don’t think it is a real migration crisis we are living in Europe at the moment; it is a political crisis on the back of migrants. Look to the figures before spreading fear into the population and the public opinion,” ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt told the plenary session.

Legislators did not share either the link between migration and security, “as if every asylum seeker was a potential criminal or terrorist”, said Phillip Lamberts (Greens/EFA).

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However, the control of the external borders of the EU “is not an invention of this time,” Juncker said. The Commission has been putting proposals related to this challenge since 2008.

The EU executive, Juncker said, “is sometimes more far-sighted than the Member States can be”. If the tabled measures would have been taken into account at the time, he stressed that “we would have spared ourselves many problems”.

On the internal dimension of migration, Juncker recalled all pending legislation related to the common asylum system. Here, the Commission chief stressed, “we need the Austrian negotiating arts”.

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Co-legislators still disagree on two of the seven pieces of legislation of the asylum package, including the reform of the Dublin system to redistribute refugees arriving in Europe.

Under that system, member states where asylum seekers submit their requests are responsible for them. These rules led to a disproportionate concentration of refugees in frontline countries, in particular Greece and Italy.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani insisted that the EU Assembly would like to see the reform of the asylum system as a package, including the reform of the Dublin rules.

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The second priority for the Austrian Presidency is securing prosperity and enhancing competitiveness in Europe, in particular in the digital market.

The Austrian chancellor defended the need to create the conditions for a “high-tech Europe” and most importantly, the EU needs to harmonize taxes on digital giants, in order to ensure “equal opportunities and fair competition for European companies,” the chancellor said.

Kurz, who was Foreign Affairs minister for four years, has awarded a great importance to the international dimension of the EU policies.  “We as the European Union also need to be active on our neighbouring areas, because Europe does not end at our external borders,” he said.

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Western Balkans

The Austrian presidency will focus in particular in securing the Eastern Partnership, improving the dialogue with Russia and stepping up cooperation with Africa but above all, to support the accession process of Western Balkans countries.

“The European blueprint will only be completed when the Western Balkans belong to our community of nations,” Kurz highlighted. “What we really need is an honest perspective for these countries,” he insisted.

Brexit and the starting of the negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework will be the non-chosen priorities which the presidency is also committed to work on.

When it comes to the MFF, Juncker showed his confidence in the Presidency to ensure a deal before the European elections next year.

“If the Austrian Presidency does not do what we expect of it, namely to work swiftly on these issues, then we will be in a similar situation like last time,” the president warned, when the EU long-term budget was not ready on time.

EU leaders postpone completion of banking union

Despite previous promises to achieve results on eurozone reforms in June, EU leaders postponed until December an agreement on the backstop to wind down failing banks and did not include any date for starting discussions on a European deposit guarantee scheme.

In a 25-minute-long speech, and despite the recent developments, Kurz did not mention the pending reform of the eurozone, as MEPs criticised.

For some, the Kurz’s government represented the arrival of the far-right to the Presidency of the EU. “I have never been scared of the extreme right,” said Lamberts, “but when the ideas of the extreme right contaminates the parties that were at the heart of the European democracy we are all in danger”.

But Juncker insisted that European values are at the core the Austrian programme. “I have known Sebastian Kurz for many years and I know that he is supported by European convictions. The same applies to the Austrian Federal Government,” Juncker stressed.

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