Austria urges Greece to bolster sea border

Austria stepped up pressure on Greece on Monday to bolster the European Union's main external border against the flood of asylum seekers as EU ministers met anew to tackle the crisis.

Austria urges Greece to bolster sea border
Refugees arriving in Greece. File photo: UNHCR

An overwhelmed Austria has for days called on Greece to do more to reinforce its sea border with Turkey, the main gateway for the more than one million Syrian and other asylum seekers who entered the 28-nation bloc last year.

“Greece has to reinforce its resources and accept help,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters as she arrived for talks with her EU counterparts in Amsterdam.

“It is a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected. The Greek navy has enough capacities to secure this border. It is one of the biggest navies in Europe,” she added.

“If we do not manage to secure Europe's external border, this is the Greek-Turkish border, the European external border will move towards central Europe.”

Mikl-Leitner has previously warned that Athens could face “temporary exclusion” from the passport-free Schengen zone of 26 countries, in order to pressure Greece to reinforce its external borders.

Austria — one of the main transit countries for migrants trying to reach Germany — and other Schengen members have reintroduced temporary internal border controls to cope with the migrant flows, raising fears the zone could collapse.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos,a former Greek foreign minister, told reporters as he arrived for the Amsterdam talks that a plan to suspend Greece from Schengen has not been proposed.

But he added: “It is obvious that frontline member states must work more and here we are to support them to better do their job.”

Mikl-Leitner meanwhile insisted that a new national cap on the number of asylum seekers — 37,500 in 2016, compared to the 90,000 claims Austria received last year — “will stay.” She had said on Sunday that the new cap could be reached by the summer.

As EU ministers arrived by boat via a canal to the conference centre, Amnesty International sent a boat filled with mannequins representing refugees who had sailed on the vessel from Egypt to Italy last year.

“Leaders of Europe it is not the polls you should worry about, it is the history books,” read a message on a dinghy accompanying the boat.


‘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.