24th Oct 2016

EU at breaking point over migration crisis

  • Waiting for a solution. Dutch state secretary Dijkhoff (l) and Commissioner Avramopoulos after the council meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU divisions over the migrant crisis reached a new low on Thursday (25 February), with Greece saying that it won’t become “Europe’s Lebanon” and accusing Austria of “19th century attitudes.”

The raw nerves were on display as home affairs ministers and Turkey’s deputy PM held talks in Brussels in the run-up to a summit with Turkey next week.

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“Greece will not accept becoming Europe's Lebanon, a warehouse of souls, even if this were to be done with major [EU] funding,” Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas told press on his way into the event.

Inside the meeting, sources say, other EU states accused Greece of waving through asylum seekers without any attempt to control the flows of people.

But Mouzalas hit back saying some countries are trying to turn Greece into a giant refugee camp.

Slovak minister Robert Kalinak said after the event: “It’s not customary for ministers to jump into each other’s speeches. Since I’ve been coming here for the last eight years, I don’t remember such a thing. It's getting really very emotional.”

Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said: “If it is really the case that the Greek external border cannot be protected, can it be still a Schengen [EU free-travel zone] external border?”.

Greece, earlier in the day, also recalled its ambassador from Vienna.

The Greek foreign ministry in a statement accused Austria of “19th century attitudes” in its handling of the issues.

Plan B

Mouzalas’ remarks on Greece as an EU-funded “warehouse of souls” refer to a proposal by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia for an EU plan B on migration.

They say that if Greece can’t control its borders, then people should be filtered on the Greece-Macedonia boundary and the EU should fund humanitarian aid for migrants stuck in Greece.

Athens’ dispute with Vienna comes after Austria, Macedonia, and Serbia imposed caps on migrant entries, already creating bottlenecks in Greece.

It escalated on Wednesday when Vienna hosted a meeting with Western Balkan states at which they agreed to step up border controls.

Plan A

The EU and Turkish ministers had met to discuss progress on a joint EU-Turkey plan to stem the flow of migrants - what Dutch state secretary for justice Klaas Dijkhoff described as “the most preferred solution, the European solution.”

The EU is preparing to start paying for migrant aid projects in Turkey from April onward out of a €3 billion fund.

It’s also accelerating visa-free talks and preparing to open new chapters in EU accession negotiations.

Turkey says that in the first two weeks of February it prevented 9,250 irregular migrants from crossing to Greece and arrested 300 or so human smugglers.

EU leaders will hold a summit with Turkey in Brussels on 7 March, with Ankara hoping that some EU members will also volunteer to resettle refugees from Turkey to Europe.

Dijkhoff, on Thursday, said he “cannot guarantee” that the Plan A “will deliver in time,” however.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “The possibility of a humanitarian crisis of a large scale ... is very real and very near.”

"In the next 10 days, we need tangible and clear results on the ground. Otherwise there is a risk that the whole system will completely break down,” he said.

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