- EU discord worsens as Austria leads bid to shut Alpine routes
- Summit on March 7 seen as last-gasp effort for common policy
Greece fought to escape its growing isolation in Europe’s refugee crisis, warning of a humanitarian disaster on its territory unless migrants are allowed to move further north.
Greek officials denounced a group led by Austria for stopping refugee transit at Greece’s northern border and demanded the enforcement of stillborn plans to relocate people across the European Union.
“Greece will not become the Lebanon of Europe, a warehouse for souls,” Ioannis Mouzalas, Greek minister for migration, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday at an EU meeting on the crisis. He threatened “unilateral actions” to defend Greece’s corner.
The refugee emergency has created an unlikely alliance between Greece and Germany, both clinging to hope for a coordinated European solution with help from Turkey and squaring off against the Austria-led faction that is shutting down the routes toward the Alps on its own.
It has created equally unlikely foes as well, pitting traditional allies like Germany and Austria against each other. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former Greek foreign minister, warned that without tangible progress soon “there is a danger, there’s a risk, that the whole system will completely break down.”
Some 98,000 refugees have crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece so far this year, after 857,000 in 2015. Greece is under pressure to register, fingerprint and house them with the promise that eligible refugees will, eventually, be sent to northern Europe and ineligible ones will be sent home.
“Greece always claims it’s not possible to control the Greek external border, and if Greece can’t do it, that provides the best argument for others to act, to supervise and protect borders elsewhere,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. She rejected charges that Austria is a closed shop, saying it plans to take in 37,500 refugees in 2016.
Austria hosted a meeting Wednesday of officials from western Balkan countries with the goal of building a line of defense at the border between Macedonia and Greece. The effect, Greek officials said, would be to turn Greece into a refugee dumping ground. Greece protested by recalling its ambassador to Austria for consultations.
The European quarrel is set to reach a head at a summit on March 7 that will make a final push for Turkey to take care of refugees on its soil and disperse some to Europe under an orderly screening process.
“The European Union project is crumbling on the fringes and the cohesion is giving way to individual, national-interest solutions,” Standard & Poor’s managing director of sovereign ratings, Moritz Kraemer, said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “In the euro-zone crisis, you could still kick the can down the road,” using bridge loans to buy time. “The refugee crisis is actually much more immediate because these people are standing on our doorstep and a decision is required now.”
There was progress on the Turkey front late Wednesday, with the official launch of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization naval mission to patrol the sea lanes between Turkey and Greece. NATO will focus on surveillance, enabling the Turkish and Greek coast guards to go after human smuggling networks.
Germany is counting on the NATO mission and an EU-Turkey agreement to halt the human flow into Greece, but will rethink its policy in the absence of a “substantial reduction” in time for next month’s summit, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.
“If national measures gain the upper hand, it harms everybody,” De Maiziere said.
He spoke as Germany’s parliament backed tighter asylum rules sought by Chancellor Angela Merkel, including measures to speed up the processing of asylum requests, hasten the expulsion of those who don’t qualify and restrict family reunions for some refugees.
One of Germany’s principal detractors, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, again rebuked its efforts at a refugee compromise. In an interview with German tabloid Bild, Orban criticized “curt, rough, aggressive” attitudes in Germany in the EU refugee debate.
Orban, one of the prime spokesmen for close-the-borders policies, sought to strengthen his domestic standing on Wednesday by announcing a referendum in Hungary to back his opposition to EU refugee quotas.
EU ministers on Thursday also approved plans for full passport checks of all travelers -- not just non-European ones -- at the bloc’s outer borders. That counter-terrorism proposal now goes to the European Parliament. Plans for a future EU coast guard also moved ahead, though it won’t be set up in the near term.