Austria reinstates border controls in refugee crisis

Austria will follow Germany's lead and temporarily reinstate border controls to cope with a surge in refugees, the interior minister said on Monday, in a further blow to Europe's passport-free Schengen area.

Austria reinstates border controls in refugee crisis
Refugees arriving at Vienna's Westbahnhof station. Photo: Caritas

“Yes, we will proceed as Germany did, which means that temporary controls at the borders are permitted in the framework of Schengen, and we will conduct these temporary border controls,” minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Brussels.

“This means controls directly at the border some hours after the preparations today in the Austrian government”, she said ahead of a crisis meeting with her EU counterparts.

“We are in the process of informing the Commission about this,” she added.

European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said Brussels was “aware of the reports” of the Austrian decisions “but we have not received the formal notification.”

“We are talking about the next days for these border controls. We will leave open at what crossing points we will do this primarily. In any case, we will start as soon as possible directly at the Austrian-Hungarian border.”

Austria had “massive migration flows” with around 18,000 refugees currently in the country, Mikl-Leitner said.

Germany announced on Sunday that it would reintroduce border controls to deal with the huge influx in migrants after throwing its doors open earlier this month.

Berlin's shock move, which struck at the heart of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, has ramped up the pressure on interior ministers holding emergency talks in Brussels on Monday.

Germany has admitted that Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War II has pushed it to the limit and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said there were “many signs that Germany this year will take in not 800,000 refugees, as forecast by the interior ministry, but one million.”

The United Nations refugee agency warned the confusion surrounding border policies around Europe could leave migrants, many of whom have made gruelling treks through the continent, in “legal limbo”.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann announced earlier on Monday that 2,200 military personnel would help step up checks at the border with Hungary.


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.