Austria’s foreign minister has accused the European Union of “acting like a human trafficker” by ushering refugees straight to the centre of the continent.
Speaking exclusively to the Observer before Monday’s crucial EU-Turkey summit, Sebastian Kurz said that “in Greece refugees are being waved through to the heart of Europe. That is simply unacceptable in the long run. The European Union cannot act like a human trafficker.” Restoring the Dublin and Schengen agreements, he said, had to be a priority at the meeting between the EU leaders and Turkey.
Austria has emerged as the leader of a rebel alliance of central European and west Balkan states that have thwarted German chancellor Angela Merkel’s strategy for an EU-wide solution to the refugee crisis – a remarkable turnaround from last summer when Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, had strongly supported Merkel’s open-border stance.
Austria received 85,500 applications for asylum in 2015, the third highest number of applications per capita in Europe after Hungary and Sweden. But diplomatic tensions between the countries have risen since Austria called what the German media has described as a “putsch-like meeting” on migration in Vienna, to which both Germanyand Greece were not invited. Macedonia’s decision to tighten its border with Greece, allowing only Syrians and Iraqis to pass through into the EU, has created tumultuous scenes along its border fence.
Kurz, who has emerged as one of the most vocal agitators against the German plan for the refugee crisis, defended his country’s course of action. “What is happening on the Macedonian border is absurd,” Kurz, a member of the conservative Austrian People’s party, said. “You have people protesting and in some cases resorting to violence because they want to move from an EU state into a non-EU state. It shows what grave mistakes some European politicians have made over the last 12 months. Opening the borders in 2015 has led to an influx that Europe can no longer shoulder.”
Kurz, 29, who has been in office since 2013, insisted that the majority of migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border were there not because they were in desperate need but because they were in search of a better life. “These people don’t come to Europe because they want to live on Lesbos. They come here because they want to enjoy the living standards and benefits they are guaranteed in countries like Austria, Germany or Sweden,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame these people; I can understand them, because many politicians have triggered false hopes.
“If people have the choice of where they settle in Europe, then we cannot be surprised that they choose to come over here in search of a better life. The distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred, and I think it is of utmost importance that we re-establish some clarity in this regard.”
Austria’s critics accuse the country’s introduction of tougher border controls, which has been dubbed “plan B”, of merely shifting the refugee crisis to another entry point along the Mediterranean, such as the east coast of Italy.
In a TV interview last week, Merkel criticised Austria for taking unilateral action before the summit, telling an interviewer: “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”
However, many in Germany believe that Austria’s plan B has given the German chancellor a welcome breather before three crucial regional elections in a week’s time. According to a survey by N24-Emnid, only 18% of Germans still believe that EU member states can agree a joint solution to the refugee crisis, while 79% expect that national solutions will be found to restrain the flow of migration.
A German plan to distribute 300,000 refugees a year across willing EU member states, still confidently presented as Merkel’s last gambit in the middle of February, was postponed after the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, cancelled his appearance at the last Brussels summit, and appears to have been shelved in the wake of Austria’s renegade action. On Friday, a German government spokesman said that the redistribution of refugees would “not be on top of the agenda” at the summit.
“Angela Merkel says that she wants a European solution,” said Kurz. “I believe that, also due to Austrian pressure, we are now closer to a European solution than ever. I hear in the news that the German chancellor now says that there has to be an end to people being waved through at the borders. Mr [Donald] Tusk [president of the European Council] says the same.”
Kurz said that he had “the deepest respect for Angela Merkel” and maintained that their positions were not as far apart as it seemed. “We are not criticising the Germans, but we expect a lot more understanding.”
Asked if Austria’s new reputation as the bad boy of European politics would do long-term damage to his country’s reputation, Kurz said: “Austria has shown a lot of solidarity during this crisis, and I think most people recognise that. I would even say that Europe should be grateful to Austria for applying some pressure to the situation and breaking the standstill. Over the last year, we have had lots of summits, but not much movement on the central questions.”
Kurz said he was not disappointed in countries such as Britain that had been less willing to accept asylum applications. “What people often don’t mention when they complain about Great Britain is how much money in humanitarian aid the UK has spent, while other countries like Sweden have reduced their aid money in order to build more refugee shelters, which is far more expensive than providing aid in the countries of origin.
“Is it really more ethical if fewer people are helped in the long run?” New figures released on Friday show that Britain received 38,370 applications for asylum in 2015, roughly the same amount as Belgium. Regarding the chances of an agreement with Turkey at the summit, Kurz sounded a note of caution: “I will be happy if an agreement can be reached with Turkey. But I find it hard to predict how realistic that is.
http://www.theguardian.com/email/form/article/3640“It is important that we return to the principles of the Dublin agreement, and helpGreece with European funds to accommodate refugees.
“Greece has previously been offered help, but wouldn’t take it – and who can blame them, if it is so much easier just to usher people through to the centre of the continent. Given the current arrangement that we have with Macedonia, Greece may no longer have the choice to do so.”