Austria rejects ‘absurd’ criticism of migrant policy

Austria's government hit back on Monday at "absurd" criticism of its tougher migrant policy, after coming under fire from Germany and Greece where a bottleneck is building due to Vienna's measures.

Austria rejects 'absurd' criticism of migrant policy
Migrants at the border between Greece and Macedonia. Photo: EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI

“We don't have to take criticism from anyone on any side,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told the Austria Press Agency.

“Apparently for some the European solution (to the crisis) is for all (the migrants) to mass in Austria,” she said.

Austria, which took in 90,000 asylum-seekers in 2015 and saw almost ten times as many pass through, imposed on February 19th a cap of 80 asylum claims per day and of 3,200 migrants allowed to transit.

At a meeting in Vienna last week, it persuaded nine countries along the well-trodden path for migrants from Greece through the western Balkans towards Austria and beyond to impose tighter controls too.

Neither Greece, where thousands of migrants have become stuck as a result, nor Germany were invited to the talks, underscoring the deep rifts within the EU as it faces the biggest influx of migrants since 1945.

Germany in particular has criticised the limit on the number allowed to pass through Austria as being too high, but Mikl-Leitner said that Germany itself had imposed daily caps in December, leading to “huge backlogs” in Austria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday she found Austria's “unilateral” decision “a little unfortunate” and described how it derailed a timetable for a series of EU measures and meetings to tackle the migrant crisis.

She said Vienna's move came just before a February 18th EU summit and led her to insist that leaders move forward their next Brussels debate on the issue from a regular March 18th summit to next on March 7th.

“If Austria had not taken this decision, we could have waited until our regular March 18th Council,” she said, allowing time to see results from several measures, such as a NATO surveillance mission in the Aegean Sea to stop refugee boats.

Austria says that its measures and those of Balkan countries, which are only allowing 580 migrants to enter per day, are necessary because efforts towards a common EU policy have failed so far.

Relations between Austria and Greece have soured dramatically, with Athens withdrawing its ambassador and Austria's Chancellor Werner Faymann on Sunday accusing Greece of “behaving like a travel agency” for migrants.

EU president Donald Tusk will meet Faymann in Vienna on Tuesday as part of a visit to several Balkan countries in a bid to heal the deep divisions over how to tame the migrant crisis.


‘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.