Saturday

23rd Jun 2018

Austria takes lead on migrant camps outside EU

  • Far-right Austrian party leader Heinz-Christian Strache (r) at Wednesday's EU talks, alongside (from left to right) Frans Timmermans, Sebastian Kurz and Jean-Claude Juncker (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

People seeking refuge from war and poverty could be corralled into "unattractive" detention centres outside the EU if one European clique gets its way.

The project comes as EU capitals lose faith in joint asylum laws, taking matters into their own hands instead.

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  • Sebastian Kurz won elections promising to curb migration (Photo: oevp.at)

"It's really not a project of the Austrian [EU] presidency. It's a national project we share with Denmark and a small group of other member states," Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz said in Brussels on Wednesday (7 June).

The initiative to "offer protection to these people outside the European Union" was needed to stop them from 'asylum-shopping', he added.

"People travelling to Europe illegally cross through several countries and pick their favourite one to lodge their asylum claim. It shouldn't be like that," he said.

EU leaders will meet in Brussels at the end of June to discuss broader asylum reform, but Austria, the incoming EU presidency, whose job it will be to forge agreement, showed little faith that the two-year old deadlock on the dossier could be broken this month.

"If there should be no solution at the June European Council, we'll keep working on the issue," Kurz said, nodding to another EU summit on the subject due in Austria in September.

The European Commission, whose job it also is to forge agreement, gave him the green light for the migrant camps project.

"Illegal migration is a European affair, but it's also a national affair for those member states who are involved, so it's not up to me to be against this initiative," commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told press side-by-side with Kurz in the EU capital.

The Austrian clique also includes Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, whose officials are in talks on the camp scheme.

The stakes if things go wrong could not be higher, German leader Angela Merkel told a meeting of conservative EU politicians in Munich, also on Wednesday.

"If we're unable to come up with a common response to migration challenges, the very foundations of the EU will be at stake. To begin with, it'll be freedom of movement that'll be questioned," she said

"I don't know if we're really in a position to counter future crises effectively," Merkel said.

The proposed camps were to be situated in Europe, but outside the EU, Danish leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen said in Copenhagen earlier on Tuesday.

"It'd be in a country that isn't on the migrants' or the human traffickers' list of preferred destinations," he said, a "not particularly attractive" country, he added.

"Based on my discussions with other European leaders … we'll be able to take the first step this year," Rasmussen said.

Asylum seekers coming to Bavaria in Germany could end up in detention camps there in August already if Markus Soeder, the Bavarian 'president', from Merkel's political bloc, gets his way.

They would also have no right to work and get food coupons instead of welfare money, Soeder said this week.

Hardening line

The hardening line comes amid concern that numbers of people coming to the EU via Italy and Greece will keep going up and amid a wave of support for anti-immigrant populists.

Kurz met Juncker on Wednesday together with his vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, from the far-right FPO party in Austria's ruling coalition.

The anti-immigrant SDS, the 5 Star Movement, and League parties recently won power in Slovenia and Italy, respectively, while the hard-right Sweden Democrats party is surging in polls ahead of Swedish elections in September.

The EU asylum reforms include migrant quotas, an EU border police, harmonised asylum criteria, and more deportations of claimants who come from EU-designated "safe countries".

The commission proposed the reforms two years ago after more than one million people marched to Europe from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in 2015 at the height of the migration crisis.

But anti-immigrant leaders in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, among others, have failed to agree on burden-sharing with Greece and Italy.

Agreement seemed further away than ever after interior ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday.

Salvage job

Germany said it was "not willing to accept" the latest draft compromise.

"The Dublin reform is dead. There is totally no consensus," Belgium's interior minister, Theo Francken, said, referring to the so-called Dublin regulation, the law that governs the EU's current asylum system.

Some bits of the reforms could still be salvaged, Austria's Kurz said on Wednesday, however.

He mentioned the creation of an EU border police under the auspices of the bloc's migration agency, Frontex, in Warsaw, as one area of accord.

"We need to have more order and stability in the European Union so that we don't have internal borders, but external borders that are properly protected," Kurz said, echoing Merkel's concern on EU free movement.

"We want to stop the checks at internal [EU] borders, while guaranteeing protection of external borders," the commission's Juncker said.

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