The European refugee crisis is rapidly intensifying political divisions within the European Union and among Germany’s states. Austria, formerly a close German ally, has rapidly distanced itself from Berlin on the refugee issue, while strengthening its ties to its Balkan neighbors.
At a meeting in Vienna on Wednesday, Austria and nine Balkan nations agreed on new measures to keep out migrants. Their deal will enable closer cooperation of different national police forces at critical crossing points.
The aim of the mini-summit called by Austria is to stop the ongoing flow of refugees moving through Greece, then on through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. “It is crucial to stop the flow of refugees along the Balkan route,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, of the conservative Austrian People’s Party.
“It is crucial to stop the flow of refugees along the Balkan route.”
Germany, the principal destination of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, was not invited to the discussions – something that is widely seen as a reaction to German criticism of Austria’s increasingly independent policy on refugees. In a remark apparently aimed at Berlin, Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, said he expected “understanding for the fact that Austria is simply overstretched.”
With the new agreement, Austria and the Balkan states also want to strengthen their position ahead of the meeting of European Union interior ministers to be held in Brussels on Thursday. The Austrian government recently imposed a daily upper limit of 80 refugee applications, while continuing to send 3,200 refugees a day to Germany.
Werner Faymann, the Austrian federal chancellor, said Germany was welcome to set a limit on the daily number of refugees which Austria sent on to Germany. Mr. Faymann is the leader of the center-left Austrian Social Democrats, who govern in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party.
Austria’s policy has found little support among German politicians. “Austria’s government is rushing into actions, instead of continuing the constructive, patient work of finding viable solutions,” said Anton Hofreiter, the parliamentary leader of Germany’s Green Party. It ran the risk of “setting off a domino effect: something to be avoided at all costs,” he said.
At the weekend, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière also criticized the new Austrian policy of daily limits on refugees, saying it “sent the wrong signal.”
Senior E.U. politicians have also spoken out. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said he wanted to defuse the dispute on limits, and intended to “engage with” the government in Vienna on the question.
The refugee summit in Vienna also intensified tensions between Austria and Greece, another government pointedly left off the list of invitees. The Greek government said Austria’s closer cooperation with the Balkan states was “absolutely not a friendly act.” The government in Athens fears that the closed-border policies spreading through southeast Europe will bring about a humanitarian crisis in Greece. On Thursday, in reaction to the moves, Greece recalled its ambassador from Vienna.
Greece claims tighter controls in Macedonia mean it has to deal with a growing number of stranded refugees. The numbers trapped at the border could soon run to “tens of thousands,” said Greek migration minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, on Wednesday. At present there were about 12,000 refugees in Greece who were unable to continue on to western Europe, and the number could reach 14,000 or 16,000 within days, he warned.
Unlike other Balkan states, Bulgaria is refusing to join Austria’s anti-refugee alliance. Bulgarian foreign minister Daniel Mitow criticized “any separate negotiations between E.U. countries intended to close internal E.U. frontiers.” His country continues to work for a pan-European solution, he added.
Hungary did not attend the Vienna summit, but has long been a fierce opponent of Angela Merkel’s attempt to establish a quota system to distribute refugees among all E.U. countries. On Wednesday, the hard-line Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán confirmed that he had called a national referendum on the issue.
Announcing the measure, Mr Orbán said that “we think that introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people is an abuse of power.” The plebiscite will take place in the coming months, although an exact date has not yet been set. Hungarian voters will be asked the question: “Do you want the European Union to stipulate the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary, even without the consent of Parliament?”
Observers see this as a clever tactical move on Mr. Orbán’s part, which calls the democratic legitimacy of the E.U.’s proposed quota system into question.
“Do you want the European Union to stipulate the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary, even without the consent of Parliament?”
In recent months, Hungary has erected razor-wire fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, and has plans for a similar fence on the Romanian border. Late last year, the country brought a case before the European Court of Justice to dispute the planned E.U. refugee quota system. The court, based in Luxemburg, has final jurisdiction over E.U. law. Under the proposed quota system, Hungary has been asked to accept 1,300 refugees.
In Germany, parliament on Thursday passed its second, tougher asylum law package by a broad majority. But agreement there hasn’t stopped the crisis from continuing to exacerbate regional and political differences. Disputes have broken out in a committee meant to coordinate refugee policy between the central government in Berlin and the administrations of the country’s 16 federal states.
A number of federal states governed by the center-left Social Democratic Party have broken ranks to propose a new motion on the crisis in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament where representatives of each state hold a seat. The resolution calls on the federal government to increase financial support for the states and reiterates support for the proposed E.U. quota system.
Lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union condemned the move, suggesting it was made with one eye on upcoming regional elections. They insisted that all federal states had agreed to find solutions to the refugee question through the Conference of State Premiers, the regular meeting of state leaders.
“It is really not acceptable. This jockeying for position is just playing into the hands of the far right,” said Reiner Haseloff, the Christian Democratic premier of Saxony-Anhalt, one of the states where elections will take place in the coming weeks.
Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna and specializes in media and telecommunications coverage. Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.