10th Dec 2023

Austria contests French claim on migration accord

  • A Syrian refugee rescued at sea. Austria opposes solidarity mechanisms when it comes to search-and-rescue operations (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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Austria has disputed claims by the French EU presidency of an informal agreement concerning one the most contentious issues on migration and asylum.

The French had suggested all EU member states accept the principle of binding rules either to relocate asylum seekers, or to offer up some other form of aid like financial contributions or deportations.

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A dispute over the issue of sharing out responsibility for migrants, so that countries like Greece are not overburdened by arrivals, has gone on for at least the past seven years amid court cases and bitter rows — and the apparent disagreement between Paris and Vienna suggests there may yet be no quick agreement.

Austria on Monday (February 7) made clear its reservations.

"It is indeed not our position, we are not in agreement with mandatory solidarity," a spokesperson for the Austrian representation in Brussels said.

That Austrian position is at odds with recent comments made by French interior minister Gérald Darmanin. He told reporters after an informal meeting of EU interior ministers in France last week that everyone had agreed to the principle of mandatory solidarity.

"It is to be compulsory," said Darmanin, referring to the sharing out of responsibility.

"It's not going to be voluntary. And if there is no relocation, well, there'll be a lot of financial support," said Darmanin, referring to the idea that states that declined to take asylum seekers would make payments instead.

Austria said there was only agreement on a step-by-step approach to negotiations over a new migration pact proposed by the European Commission in September 2020 that still has not been approved.

For its part, Vienna is calling for an "alliance of reason" to further shore up the external borders, as recently proposed by Austria's interior minister.

The Austrian stance points to a deeply-ingrained resistance among some member states to mandatory EU rules on relocating asylum seekers that have previously been torpedoed by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

The European Commission proposed its overhaul of the EU-wide asylum and migration rules, including mandatory solidarity, in 2020.

The commission's idea would require EU states to either relocate asylum seekers, sponsor the returns of rejected asylum seekers, or possibly offer some other form of aid. But those ideas were given short shrift by the leaders of Poland and Hungary.

Because of the acrimony, a mini-deal appears more likely.

At least 12 EU states are said to accept relocations, in what Germany has described as a "coalition of those willing to take in refugees."

That approach also is supported by the former Italian prime minister and leader of Italy's social democrats, Enrico Letta.

Darmanin also suggested that EU states might help with disembarkation of asylum seekers in search-and-rescue operations, an idea also included in the commission's 2020 migration proposal.

But internal EU documents from December obtained by EUobserver show there is also a resistance — particularly from Austria — against making joint help with sea rescues part of a mandatory approach.

Denmark also is a country with strong reservations. The Danes support mandatory solidarity but not any binding rules on relocation, a government source told EUobserver.

Lead MEP wants 'mandatory relocation' in EU asylum law

Spanish centre-left MEP Juan Lopez Aguilar chairs the European Parliament's civil liberties committee and is the lead on the crisis regulation, a bill presented by the EU commission last September as part of its migration and asylum pact.

Ukraine war complicates Mediterranean 'solidarity' plan

The French EU presidency proposal seeks to relocate 10,000 asylum seekers, arriving from the Mediterranean, over one year. But with refugees from Ukraine stretching national reception systems, it remains unclear how many EU states will commit to relocations.

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