Chancellor Angela Merkel wants the European Union to agree to a migrant deal with Egypt and other nations in Africa and the Middle East to curb illegal migration to Europe, modeled on the agreement reached with Turkey in March.
“We want to complete agreements with North Africa and with African states as quickly as possible,” Ms. Merkel said on Saturday after a summit of nations along the so-called Balkan route used by more than 1 million migrants last year. “People who can’t remain in Europe from a humanitarian point of view will be returned to their home country.”
The chancellor said a deal with Egypt was the priority right now. “A deal like the one we have with Turkey must now be worked out with Egypt,” she said. “We want to combat illegality and promote legality.”
The deal between the E.U. and Turkey provided Turkey with billions of euros in financial assistance in return for taking back illegal refugees who had made their way across the Aegean Sea to E.U. member Greece. Since then the number of migrants has fallen sharply.
Ms. Merkel, under intense pressure at home due to the influx of refugees, has not abandoned her open-door policy but made a significant switch in tone last week, dropping her “we’ll manage it” mantra, saying her government had made mistakes and expressing regret that Germany had not been better prepared for the numbers of refugees who entered the country last year.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the E.U. should set up a "giant refugee city" on the Libyan coast and process asylum claims from there.
The summit in the Austrian capital produced no significant progress. The distribution of refugees among E.U. member states remained the biggest bone of contention. Ms. Merkel said that so far only 4,000 migrants had been distributed from mainland Greece to other E.U. countries.
That’s a small fraction of the 160,000 refugees E.U. nations pledged a year ago to relocate mainly from Italy and Greece. Austria and its Balkan neighbors introduced border restrictions in February that largely closed the Balkan route, leaving thousands of migrants stranded in Greece, and undermining German calls for united E.U. action.
“The matter must be sped up,” Ms. Merkel said, referring to the relocation. It remains unclear how that is going to happen because Eastern European countries continue to resist taking in more migrants – a source of tension between her and the leaders of those countries, especially the hardline prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, who has railed against refugees and built a razor-wire fence along his country’s southern border last year.
“Hungary isn’t expected to take part in the relocation,” Ms. Merkel said with frustration in her voice.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that at present, only 100 to 150 refugees per day were making it to Austria.
Mr. Orban indirectly attacked Ms. Merkel following the Vienna meeting. “We need a plan B for the Turkey deal with the E.U.,” the right-wing populist demanded. He said that to relieve Italy, which has been on the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis, the E.U. should set up a “giant refugee city” on the Libyan coast and process asylum-seekers’ claims there.
Mr. Orban praised plans by the European Union to step up border controls along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Macedonian-Greek frontiers with the help of the Frontex border agency. E.U. Council President Donald Tusk also said the protection of the bloc’s external borders was the priority now.
There are no exact figures for the number of refugees currently making their way up the Balkan route from south-eastern Europe to Germany. Thousands of migrants are currently stuck in Serbia and Macedonia. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that at present, only 100 to 150 refugees per day were making it to Austria.
Meanwhile, Mr. Orban said he was opposed to building a border fence between Hungary and Austria. His moderate stance in that regard isn’t surprising given that his country relies on unhindered trade and freedom of movement of labor and people between it and the West.
He has called a national referendum on the E.U.’s refugee policy for next Sunday in a bid to strengthen his position.
Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s Austria correspondent, based in Vienna. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org