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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

Tensions in government as refugee crisis bites

Tensions within Austria's government, stoked by the refugee crisis, burst into the open on Thursday as the head of the conservative People's Party threatened to scupper the ruling coalition after less than two years in office.

Tensions in government as refugee crisis bites
Refugees crossing the Hungarian border. Photo: APA

“If we are unable to show soon — by which I mean in the coming months — that we are willing and able to govern, then it makes little sense to keep messing about,” Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said in a newspaper interview.

“I say quite openly that after the Upper Austria state election (last weekend) I am not prepared to be an idle passenger,” he said.

Mitterlehner's People's Party (ÖVP) is junior partner to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) of Chancellor Werner Faymann in an unloved “grand coalition” which is due to remain in office until 2018.

Last weekend however, both parties suffered disastrous losses in local elections in Upper Austria where the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) finished second after its share of the vote soared 15 percentage points.

On October 11, elections are scheduled to take place in the city state of Vienna that could produce a political earthquake. Polls put the FPÖ only a few points shy of the SPÖ, which has governed the Austrian capital uninterrupted since 1945.

Surveys show that a major reason for the populist FPÖ's surge in popularity — nationally it tops opinion polls, scoring more than 30 percent — is the influx of tens of thousands of migrants in recent months.

Last month, almost 170,000 people entered Austria, most of whom travelled onwards to Germany and beyond, but the Alpine country still expects a record 80,000 asylum requests this year.

Speaking to the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten daily, Mitterlehner said the government's answer to the crisis should be to finally get to grips with deep structural reforms to boost the economy.

But he also said Austria had to “sharpen” its immigration policy: “Refugees who need protection should get it. But the state's sovereignty to decide who immigrates should remain in place.”

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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