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IMMIGRATION

EU’s future ‘at stake’ in migrant crisis talks

Austria warned on Wednesday that the EU's future was at stake as it pressed Balkan states, in the absence of an effective common response by the bloc, to reduce the influx of migrants despite fears of a humanitarian crisis.

EU's future 'at stake' in migrant crisis talks
Austrian interior minister Johanna Milkl-Leitner. Photo: Austrian Government
Further undermining the European Union's hopes to get a grip on the situation, Hungary meanwhile announced a referendum on Brussels' troubled scheme to share out migrants among the 28-nation group via mandatory quotas.
 
“We have to reduce the influx now. This is a question of survival for the EU,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said after talks in Vienna with countries on the well-trodden west Balkans route north from Greece.
 
Greece, where thousands of Afghans have been held up at the border with Macedonia, angrily protested at being excluded from the ministerial meeting, underscoring the deep rifts within the EU.
 
'Warehouse of souls'
 
“Greece will no longer agree to any deal if the burdens and responsibilities are not shared proportionally,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the Greek parliament, vowing “We will not allow our country to turn into a warehouse of souls.”

A joint statement from the participants said that after hundreds of thousands of people trekked through the Balkans last year, many ending up in Germany, Sweden and also Austria, the inflow must be “massively reduced”.
 
The talks come after figures showed over 110,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy so far this year alone — 413 perishing in the attempt — following more than one million arrivals in 2015.

Amnesty International hit out Wednesday at Europe's “shameful” response, saying most EU countries had “simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important than the protection of the rights of refugees”.
 
Vienna has come under fire for organising Wednesday's talks, not least from Greece, and for imposing last week daily limits on the number of migrants who can apply for asylum in Austria or transit to other countries.

But despite sharp criticism also from Germany, Vienna says that it has no choice because the EU has failed to get off the ground any effective common strategy.

“I am optimistic that we can reach a joint EU response. The question is when,” Mikl-Leitner told a news conference. “We want to generate pressure so that the EU can reach a solution.”
 
So far joint EU efforts to halt the influx, including a deal with Turkey — the subject of a March 7 special summit — to stem the mass exodus of migrants across the sea to Greece, have failed to bear fruit.

An EU scheme agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people among EU nations under mandatory quotas, has seen just 598 relocated so far, with former communist members of the bloc opposing the plan and filing legal challenges.
 
Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban, announcing on Wednesday plans for the so-far undated referendum, said that Brussels has no right to “redraw Europe's cultural and religious identity.”

Unilateral

 
As a result of the EU's failures, countries throughout the western Balkans have begun unilaterally to impose restrictions, sparked by Austria's much-criticised daily migrant limits.
 
Macedonia has closed its frontier to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe.

“We did not take a unilateral decision,” Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told Germany's Bild daily in an interview published Wednesday.

“We reacted because of the actions of other countries.”
 
As a result on Wednesday, around 3,000 people were waiting at the Idomeni crossing point between Greece and Macedonia, police said, with the Macedonians allowing 860 people through overnight.
 
Greek authorities were attempting to take hundreds by bus back to Athens, but were being hindered by a blockade of motorways by farmers protesting for weeks about tax and pension reforms.
 
Yiannis Mouzalas, Greece's minister responsible for migration, said that there were currently some 12,000 migrants stuck in the country, with hundreds more arriving every day.

'Chaos and confusion'

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said Tuesday they were “concerned” by the developments and by the “humanitarian crisis that might unfold”.


Their fears were echoed on Wednesday by Filippo Grandi, the new head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, during a visit to Greece.
 
“By closing the borders to people that are asking for help and protection, first of all we do not fulfill our obligations, the obligations that Europe has enshrined in its own legislation and principles,” Grandi said in Athens.

“The response is not closures, it is cooperation. It is cooperation between countries. Everybody has to take a share of this burden,” he added.
 
Austrian officials said that the conclusions of the talks would be presented to a meeting of EU interior and justice ministers on Thursday in Brussels.
 
 

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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