EU leaders continue war of words on refugees
By Eric Maurice
EU leaders will hold a summit with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday (7 March), before an informal meeting.
They will discuss how to stem the flow of refugees coming from Turkey to Europe, organise the EU response to the crisis and try to ensure that EU rules and the free-movement Schengen area are not shattered by uncoordinated and contradictory policies.
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The talks will take place just as the European Commission is preparing an unprecedented humanitarian plan for EU countries, to help them cope with the huge numbers of refugees. The commission announced on Wednesday (2 March) that it would unblock €300 million this year and €400 million over 2017 and 2018.
In the build-up to the summits, public declarations show that an agreement on a "European solution" to the crisis is still far away, with leaders along the so-called Balkan route - which leads refugees from Greece, their entry point to Europe, to central and northern Europe - engaged in verbal confrontations.
Here are the position of the different countries along the road - Greece, Croatia, Austria, and Germany - as they were expressed on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We must consider the border at Idomeni closed. We must prepare for the consequences of this action," Greek migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas said on Wednesday, referring to the main crossing point to Macedonia.
About 10,000 migrants are blocked at the border that was all but closed by Macedonia last week. Greek authorities said that up to 70,000 people could be stranded in the country.
As of Monday night, the number of refugees and migrants in Greece and needing accommodation had soared to 24,000.
"These people will stay in our country and some of them must receive the hospitality that accords with their legal status," Mouzalas told a meeting of mayors, adding the situation could last two or three years.
"Greece is the point where Europe will ratify its founding principles and values, such as humanism and solidarity, or it will betray them," Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras said in an interview to Italy's Corriere della Sera on Wednesday.
"We claim nothing more than solidarity," he said, deploring that Greece was managing with the situation "in a Union that closes its borders, and xenophobia and the intolerant rhetoric of far-right are on the rise".
Tsirpas demanded that the EU "proceed with a decision, which is binding for all and by all, which concerns the obligatory, fair distribution of refugee flows in all EU countries, according to each one's capacity".
"We will either succeed together or fail together," he said.
"Through the cooperation between Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, the transit traffic [of migrants] has clearly decreased," Croatia's PM Tihomir Oreskovic told Germany's Bild on Thursday.
Last week, the five countries, together with Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Montenegro, decided at a meeting in Vienna to tighten borders in the Western Balkans, de facto blocking the way for migrants wanting to leave Greece.
The meeting was criticised by Germany for its consequences on Greece and because it was not coordinated with Germany or the EU Commission
Thanks to the measure, there is "no tension and bad surprises any more, like we had when we had to live without border checks", Oreskovic said.
"This is not a long term solution but it is an improvement," he said, adding that Germany also benefited from the move.
“It's not 3,000 refugees that are coming day after day from Austria to Germany, but less than 500.”
"We must stop the waving through [of refugees] from Greece to the North," Austrian foreign affairs minister Sebastian Kurz said in an interview to the Sueedeutsche Zeitung on Thursday.
“It cannot be that those who make it to Greece are automatically allowed to travel further.”
For Austria's chief of diplomacy, cutting the route to northern Europe is key to stop migration to Europe, as a disincentive.
"People don't hot the road to live in a camp in Lesbos but to move to a flat in Berlin," Kurz said.
Kurz implicitly criticised efforts led by Germany to cooperate with Turkey to block migrants from crossing to Greece and then to the rest of Europe.
Stopping them in Turkey rather than in Greece or in Macedonia "is not morally higher", he said. "For refugees that means the same, namely that they cannot come to central Europe".
The Austrian minister also justified why Greece was not invited to the Vienna meeting when Austria and Western Balkan decided to tighten borders.
"We knew that when you want to come off with a decision, it makes sense to coordinate with the states that pull in the same direction," he said.
The day before, Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann also aimed at Germany, from which he was until recently the closest ally.
Germany “should set up a daily quota and bring these refugees directly from Greece, Turkey or Jordan,” he told Austrian newspaper Kurier .
"Austria cannot and must not become a distribution hub for refugees," he said.
"Greece cannot be left alone with the problem," German chancellor Angela Merkel told the Volksstimme newspaper on Wednesday.
"Anyone who closes national borders doesn't do anything against the causes for the refugee movement," she said, aiming at Austria and the Western Balkan countries.
"We have to find sustainable solutions that we will still be able to justify tomorrow," she said, adding these solutions should not "set up something on one side that other countries simply have to deal with".
"We are not only concerned but really worried" about what is happening at the Greek-Macedonian border, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told journalists on Wednesday.
For Juncker, it was "foresseable" that the tightening of borders in the Western Balkans would lead to a humanitarian crisis in Greece.
Touring the region this week, European Council president Donald Tusk summarised the EU insitutions' position and concerns.
Speaking at a press conference with Croatian PM Oreskovic in Zagreb, Tusk warned that the crisis was "testing our Union to the limits, as it is no less testing your region [the Western Balkans]".
"We have to avoid an illusion that instead of the full respect for Schengen rules, there might be another, easy and convenient European solution," he said.
"Respecting the Schengen rules will not solve the migration crisis. But without it we have no chance whatsoever to resolve it," he added.
For Tusk: “There is no good alternative either to cooperating with Turkey, across which most of the migrants are currently travelling".
Wooed by Germany and EU institutions to help reduce the flow of migrants, Turkey considers it has to "work together" with the EU, a senior Turkish official told EUobserver recently.
"If we can solve it together and we can show our publics and our leaders that this agreement [the EU-Turkey action plan] is working then we can gain more trust," the official said.
Commenting from the outside on the state of EU solidarity, the Turkish official said: “It’s getting worse".
"We have to help the EU because it’s in our interests," the official said.
He noted that Turkey's help isn’t unconditional, however.
Turkey is preparing to take back migrants from the EU who fail to qualify for asylum under a new radmission pact. But it wants visa-free travel to the EU for its nationals in return.
"We hope that we’ll be given visa-liberalisation in October. If not, if the French or some others come up with an excuse, then we’ll scrap the readmission agreement," the official said.