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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

EU leaders commit fresh billions for refugees

EU leaders have agreed on spending and strategy for the coming months to try and lighten the load on countries most heavily burdened by the refugee crisis.

EU leaders commit fresh billions for refugees
Refugees at Vienna's Westbahnhof station. Photo: Kim Traill

Refugees “have no right to end up in a particular country,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists after the meeting ended in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Leaders tried to find a solution that would put an end to what EU Council President Donald Tusk called “chaos on our external frontiers”, which sees many refugees entering Europe and attempting to evade registration until they arrive in their destination country of choice – often Germany.

Instead, the EU will set up registration centres known as “hotspots” in the countries where most refugees arrive on European soil for the first time.

As well as hotspots in Greece and Italy, there are plans for a third in Bulgaria, Merkel said.

European cash will also begin flowing to the front lines of the refugee crisis, with €1 billion earmarked for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and another billion for direct aid in Turkey. The EU's border agency Frontex will be beefed up with more cash and personnel.

The total planned spending has been doubled from the amount leaders had planned for at the beginning of 2015, to €9.2 billion.

Hungary 'ignoring Dublin rules'

Meanwhile, refugees are continuing to cross the Hungarian border into Austria. 2,200 people arrived early on Thursday morning in Burgenland, and a train from Hegyeshalom was expected with 1,700 people on board.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has threatened to close his country's border with fellow EU member Croatia. Orban argues that the EU has failed to collectively secure its borders and that refugees are breaking international rules.

And he made a further stab at critics of a recently-completed fence on Hungary's border with Serbia, saying that “if you don't like the fence, then we can also let refugees through on their way to Austria and Germany”.

Tusk acknowledged that “as you can imagine, discussions between the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Austrian Chancellor [Werner Faymann] were very energetic” behind the scenes.

Faymann has accused Hungary of already ignoring the EU's so-called “Dublin” rules to allow refugees through to Austria without first registering them.

“There are points of agreement, but also many different analyses,” Merkel said of the EU's relationship to Orban – who was invited to Munich by her Bavarian allies on Tuesday in a deliberate prod at the Chancellor.

“Where we agree is that we're completely unified on the fact that the defence of the external borders is necessary,” she continued.

EU leaders will meet again for a scheduled summit in three weeks' time and continue their discussions.

IMMIGRATION

‘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.

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