EU Quarrels Over Refugees, With Greece, Austria in Crossfire

  • Germany tightens eligibility as Merkel seeks EU-wide response
  • Terrorist attacks in Turkey destabilize key transit land

European leaders quarreled again over the refugee influx, with fingers pointed at Greece for doing too little to seal its border and at Austria and Slovenia for doing too much.

Conflicting national responses to the expected 1 million new arrivals in 2016 on top of a similar number last year left Germany with the heaviest burden and Chancellor Angela Merkel facing untold political costs.

Donald Tusk speaks during the EU leaders summit.
Donald Tusk speaks during the EU leaders summit.
Photographer: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We must first avoid a battle among plans A, B and C: It makes no sense at all because it creates divisions within the European Union,” EU President Donald Tusk told reporters after meetings ended in pre-dawn hours on Friday.

No decisions were made at the summit in Brussels, especially after terror attacks struck Turkey, the key transit land for Middle Eastern refugees, and forced Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to cancel his trip. The EU-Turkey meeting was rescheduled for early March.

Merkel got EU leaders to hold another refugee crisis summit around the same time, seeking a breakthrough a week before three German state elections in which polls show the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party gaining at the expense of her Christian Democratic Union.

In Berlin on Friday, after three months of back-and-forth among the three parties in Merkel’s coalition, the German parliament tackled measures to tighten asylum standards and restrict family reunions for people granted refugee status. The laws could be approved next week.

While Merkel voiced “complete understanding” for the Turkish prime minister’s absence from Brussels, she said a joint approach with Turkey backed by 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in EU financing remains the best hope for ending national go-it-alone measures.

Merkel is banking on a cluster of European countries setting up an orderly method of transporting refugees from camps in Turkey to new homes in Europe, ending the chaotic sea crossings to Greece that have left more than 300 dead in the first six weeks of 2016.

Identity Checks

“Once illegal migration has been scaled back, legal migration based on quotas from Turkey can be arranged on a voluntary basis,” Merkel said.

But the renewed violence on Europe’s southeastern flank coincided with more European governments taking matters into their own hands, with Austria announcing additional steps to fortify its frontiers and predicting that neighboring countries will follow.

“The idea that Austria can solve the asylum question for the entire EU is unthinkable,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said. “We’re nowhere near a solution.”

Austria was rebuked by the European Commission after setting limits on new arrivals, stepping up identity checks on its border and joining Slovenia and other Balkan countries in setting up joint controls in Macedonia to filter out refugees entering from Greece.

“I don’t like that,” commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said of Austria’s decision to limit asylum applications to 80 daily and to cap refugee transits to Germany at 3,200 daily. “We are questioning if this decision is in line with European law.”

Greece Overwhelmed

An EU agreement last year to spread 160,000 refugees across the bloc is essentially dead letter. A mere 583 have been rehoused so far, with Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland -- known as the Visegrad 4 -- leading a boycott of the system.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, the refugees’ no. 2 destination after Greece, called for cuts in EU subsidies for countries that close themselves off, though that would have to wait until the next EU budget cycle starts in 2020.

The four eastern states have had it in for Greece, accusing the Athens government of pointing new arrivals northwards. Greece countered that it is overwhelmed, with 77,000 refugees making landfall in the first six weeks of 2016, compared with 5,000 in the same period last year.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Threatened with expulsion from the bloc’s passport-free travel zone, Greece has started to act. It has set up registration centers on Aegean Sea islands and consented to EU-flagged border-protection forces and a NATO fleet to patrol between the Greek and Turkish coasts.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras demanded that other governments start taking people from the reception centers so they don’t become permanent refugee camps.

“The solution to the refugee crisis is not building fences and promoting racism in Europe,” Tsipras said. “The future of Europe is not walls and xenophobia.”

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