Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Far-right ministers hog stage in Vienna

  • Kneissl, who was nominated by the far-right FPO party, spoke for Austria and for the EU in Vienna on Friday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Immigration and the far-right hogged the spotlight at this week's high-level EU meetings in a sign of the times in Europe.

The EU should prepare to deploy soldiers to its external borders to stop migrants, Mario Kunasek, Austria's defence minister, said in Vienna on Thursday (30 August).

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  • Kunasek, with Trento (c), and Mogherini in Vienna (Photo: consilium.europa.eui)

France and Spain must also open ports to people rescued by Sophia, an EU naval operation in the Mediterranean, or Italy will wreck the mission, leaving people stuck at sea, Italy said.

That position was "perfectly understandable," Austria's foreign minister, Karain Kneissl, added.

"Rotation [of ports] is always good, in the sense that several people are responsible," she said.

Kunasek and Kneissl, which spoke for Austria's EU presidency, both hail from the far-right FPO party, which was once an EU pariah, but which is now part of an Austrian coalition government.

Italian ministers Elisabetta Trenta and Matteo Salvini, who also spoke out, come from what were once fringe parties, the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League party, but who now hold power in Rome.

The Vienna talks had been meant to focus on the Western Balkans, EU defence integration, and Iran.

But immigration gobbled up time as far-right forces in Austria, Italy, Hungary, and further afield try to push the issue centre stage ahead of EU elections next year.

"We've got to protect European borders effectively," Austria's Kunasek said.

European armies ought to give logistical and reconnaissance help to EU immigration officers on the bloc's external borders, under his proposal.

The new EU military missions could deploy troops to help stop irregular migrants.

At the same time, EU defence ministers must immediately change Sophia's mandate to introduce "port rotation", Italy's Trenta said in Vienna.

Italy would walk away from the rescues "if we get the umpteenth no from Europe", Salvini said.

Sophia's at risk

The rhetoric was enough to unnerve EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini.

"If you ask me now, if we will reach an agreement [to keep Sophia going]? I can not say so," Mogherini told press on Thursday.

The migration debate rumbled on into Friday, when foreign ministers joined defence ones in Vienna.

"There is a division on this issue because some member states, such as Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have taken a lot of asylum seekers and there are other countries which have not taken any and this cannot be sustainable," Finland foreign minister Timo Soini said.

Austria's Kunasek, a former military officer, who recently conducted a drill in which soldiers and Black Hawk helicopters confronted make-pretend migrants on Austria's border, said his proposal had "attracted a lot of interest".

But even if the far-right got the EU podium in Vienna, it did not mean its ideas gained immediate traction.

Italy did take no for answer for the time being despite Salvini.

Closed doors

"I found open doors but also closed ones [at Thursday's meeting]," Trenta said. "I feel disappointed ... but I'm [still] confident," she said.

Austria also received negative signals from Germany and further afield.

Border control was a matter for the police, not the army, under the German constitution, German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said.

"There are very few ways that the military can be used in border areas ... If you don't have a military conflict, everything can be handled by police," Estonia's defence minister Juri Luik told the Reuters news agency.

The Austrian idea fell foul of the EU treaty, which says EU military operations can only be deployed outside EU territory, Mogherini said.

Decisions on migration policy, including Italy's appeal for French and Spanish ports, were in any case the prerogative of EU leaders, not defence or foreign ministers, she added.

"Today was not a matter of pledging ports," Mogherini said.

Off-script

Low-ranking EU military officials will discuss Kuska's proposal in Brussels next week, he said.

It remains uncertain if his idea, described by Mogherini as a "useful contribution", will ever be heard of again, however.

Meanwhile, if the far-right sought the spotlight, then some of its new faces, such as Austria's Kneissl, a former academic, struggled to stay on script.

Kneissl recently caused a furore by dancing with Russian president Vladimir Putin at her wedding despite EU sanctions over Russian aggression in Europe.

She showed off her wedding ring when asked to by TV crews on Thursday.

She also danced with British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt in Vienna, she told press on Friday, before trying to defend her Putin dance in veiled terms.

"We had an inspirational evening but still a dance does not have any legal or political implications, whether I dance with Jeremy or with any other man on this planet. I've danced with so many men in my life ...," Kneissl said.

"I would stop there," Mogherini advised her, with a smile, before an EU official cut off further media questions.

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