Photographer: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

EU Rift Over Refugees Grows as Greece Rebuffs Austrian Visit

  • Merkel prods fellow leaders to end bickering over solutions
  • Greece warns of humanitarian disaster as northern border shut

Tensions over the handling of Europe’s refugee crisis escalated as Greece denied an Austrian request for talks and the European Union’s top immigration official warned the deepening discord risks disaster.

Political divisions are widening ahead of an extraordinary summit of the EU’s 28 leaders on March 7 called to take stock of efforts to secure the bloc’s external frontiers and mitigate the influx of migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is defending her open-border policy in three regional elections in March, issued a rebuke.

“Developments over the last few days show that we need a European approach to solve the issue of the refugees and the security of the outer borders,” she said Friday at a news conference in Munich. “Our starting point needs to be to fight the causes of flight.”

Greek officials have denounced a group led by Austria for stopping refugee transit at the border with Macedonia, warning of a humanitarian crisis if refugees are bottled up and prevented from heading north. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government recalled the Greek ambassador to Vienna on Thursday.

‘All Eventualities’

“I offered to the Greek interior minister to come directly to Athens to explain the Austrian position,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said in an interview with ORF radio on Friday. “But meanwhile, the ambassador has gone back to Athens for consultations. I understand that Greece wants to hold talks another time.”

A Greek Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named in line with policy, said the Greek government had turned down Mikl-Leitner’s request for a meeting.

Greece views itself as a transit country and, while seeking to keep its borders open, “it is clear we must prepare for all eventualities,” Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis said at the Delphi Economic Forum in central Greece.

While German data show a decline in arrivals this winter, Peter Schoof, the country’s ambassador to Greece, told the conference there’s no quick fix and “curbing migration cannot happen through the closure of borders.”

Hungary’s government said it’s pressing ahead with plans for a national referendum aimed at blocking an EU plan to redistribute refugees among the 28 countries. “This is about the EU taking power away by stealth,” Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi said. “We feel that the defense of a national constitution is an important thing.”

‘Warehouse for Souls’

With EU states divided over policy at their borders, European Commissioner for Immigration Dimitris Avramopoulos, who is Greek, warned that the union was heading for “disaster” if no consensus among members is reached by March 7. Europe must “put an end to unilateral, bilateral and trilateral” actions, Avramopoulos at the Delphi conference.

Ioannis Mouzalas, Greek minister for migration, threatened “unilateral actions” to defend Greece’s corner, telling reporters in Brussels on Thursday that Greece was not prepared to become “a warehouse for souls.”

Mouzalas was asked by Mikl-Leitner to convey her request for a meeting, according to a separate Greek government official who asked not to be named because the talks were private. He told her that he’d pass on her message but said that a meeting would be difficult while the borders are shut, the official said.

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