Europe's Refugee Dilemma Eclipses Greek Crisis, Austria Says

  • Finance minister calls for robust approach on migrant issue
  • European Union countries still split over solution to crisis

The European Union’s refugee emergency is a bigger threat than Greece, Austria’s finance minister said, calling for the bloc’s members to confront the issue with the same tenacity they showed when tackling the economic crisis.

“This problem is a bigger problem than Greece, and it’s a problem that will take much longer to solve,” Austrian Finance Minister Hans Joerg Schelling said Tuesday at a conference sponsored by Euromoney in Vienna. “For example on Greece, we had 21 meetings in one year to solve the problems. I would be happy if the interior ministers would have 21 meetings on the European level to solve the problem of the refugees.”

Some EU governments are hardening their stance against accepting migrants following last year’s arrival of more than a million people, mainly from the Middle East. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel is struggling to quell a revolt in her party against her policy of keeping Germany open, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Monday his country must set a ceiling on the number of people it can accept. Fewer refugees would arrive if Germany, Sweden and his country closed their borders, he told Germany’s ZDF television.

Merkel is seeking a deal within the bloc to resettle asylum seekers and help Turkey care for more than 2 million refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria. Members in the bloc’s ex-communist east have rejected a deal establishing quotas on how many migrants they are obliged to accept. Hungary and Slovenia have also built fences to partially close off their borders from migrants traveling via Turkey through Greece and the former Yugoslavia to richer EU states to the north.

Austria is stepping up border checks because control of the EU’s external borders “isn’t working the way we’d like it to,” Chancellor Werner Faymann said in Vienna on Tuesday. Rising support for the anti-immigration Freedom Party and a tougher stance by its coalition partner, the conservative People’s Party, are raising pressure on Faymann after asylum requests in Austria tripled to 90,000 last year. He has so far rejected putting a limit on refugees and has instead called for more burden sharing on the continent.

“We’ve said often enough that Austria can’t exercise the right to asylum for the whole of Europe, not even together with Germany and Sweden,” Faymann said. “There’s no sensible way that could replace a common European policy.”

Schengen Threat

Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have rejected mandatory quotas obliging them and other EU states to accept a specific number of migrants each year. At a meeting of the countries’ interior ministers in Prague on Tuesday, the Czechs’ Milan Chovanec said only the protection of the bloc’s outer borders would stop illegal migrants and that the EU must ensure the functioning of “hot spots” where it can detain migrants and prevent their further travel until they’ve been documented, CTK news service reported.

The EU’s uncoordinated approach is threatening to trigger a “domino effect” of border closings and may provoke “bilateral misunderstandings and possibly more serious tensions” among EU countries, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said in a letter to the bloc’s executive commission on Monday. He urged EU members to step up assistance to Greece, the main migrant entry point from Turkey and said that Macedonia, Greece’s non-EU northern neighbor, needed help to become a “second line of defense.”

Wolfgang Schaeuble, Merkel’s finance minister, warned last week that the Schengen free-movement area is on the verge of collapse as EU countries quarrel over how to cope with record arrivals. The EU says Europeans make over 1.25 billion journeys every year within the Schengen zone, which comprises 26 countries from the Barents Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, including some such as Iceland and Norway that aren’t part of the EU.

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