Austria has dismissed criticism of its plans to limit the number of refugees allowed to enter its territory after an unusually sharp rebuke from the European commission which branded the move “plainly incompatible” with international law.
The government in Vienna announced earlier this week it would let no more than 3,200 migrants and refugees into its territory per day, either to travel on to Germany or apply for asylum in Austria, and would introduce a daily limit of 80 asylum claims. The new rules are due to come into force on Friday.
Johanna Mikl-Leitner, the Austrian interior minister, said on Thursday her government would go ahead with the restrictions as planned, brushing aside criticism from Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
Speaking as EU leaders arrived in Brussels for a summit, Juncker said “he didn’t like the decision” and promised to raise the issue with Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, later on Thursday. But Faymann appeared unrepentant, telling reporters: “Politically I say we’ll stick with it.”
In a letter to the Austrian government seen by the Guardian, the commission warned that the ceiling on asylum applications “would be plainly incompatible with Austria’s obligations under European and international law, including and in particular, the European convention on human rights, the Geneva convention and Article 18 of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union”.
“Austria has a legal obligation to accept any asylum obligation that is made on its territory or at its border,” the letter continued.
The refugee crisis, which has seen Europe fail to come up with a coherent and effective response to the biggest wave of mass migration on the continent since the second world war, saw Austria become a key place of transit last year. Most asylum seekers have tended to use the country as a means of reaching Germany.
Migration is due to be discussed over dinner on Thursday by leaders at the EU summit once they have held initial discussions on Britain’s EU membership. A meeting that had been scheduled between the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and countries ready to back her push to seek a joint EU solution to the bloc’s refugee crisis in tandem with Turkey had to be cancelled after the Turkish prime minister had to stay in Ankara following Wednesday night’s bomb attack.
Germany has led efforts in offering money and promising to revive Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks to get Ankara to prevent more people from embarking from its shores for Europe.
But four sceptical eastern European members have floated a fallback policy of ring-fencing Greece to keep the migrants 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. For one thing, closing borders would bottle up migrants in Greece, likely giving rise to major humanitarian problems in a country already struggling with its own deep financial crisis.
The four eastern states, which have also strongly opposed a German proposal for distributing refugees around the EU, have been backpedalling and increasingly seek to portray their proposal as another leg of EU strategy, not an alternative to seeking an effective deal with Turkey.
But Merkel, on arriving at the summit, pledged to press ahead with the EU-Turkey pact despite the cancellation of the planned meeting with 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, according to Reuters.