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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

EU President Tusk asks Turkey to cooperate

EU president Donald Tusk said on Tuesday he would press Turkey this week for more "intensive" help in the migrant crisis, while urging EU states to coordinate better to restore trust.

EU President Tusk asks Turkey to cooperate
Refugees and migrants arrive at the port of Piraeus near Athens. Photo credit: EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

Tusk said in Vienna at the start of a tour ahead of an EU-Turkey on March 7th summit that Europe can provide “substantial financial support” to neighbours of war-torn Syria such as Turkey.

“But at the same time we expect a more intensive engagement from our partners as an absolute precondition to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” Tusk told reporters after meeting Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

After visiting Austria and Slovenia on Tuesday and Croatia and Macedonia on Wednesday, Tusk is expected in Athens and then Ankara on Thursday to meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The following day he will hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Tusk's office said.

The March summit in Brussels will see Davutoglu and the leaders of the 28 EU states discuss the progress of last November's EU-Turkey deal aimed at cutting the flow of refugees and migrants.

Under that deal, Turkey agreed to tackle people smugglers and improve conditions for Syrian refugees in exchange for €3 billion and speeding up Ankara's EU membership bid.

But alarm is growing in EU capitals as thousands of people are still reaching the Greek islands from Turkey after more than one million made the perilous journey last year.

Failure to make progress at the summit will spell “disaster” for the bloc, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said last week, with its passport-free Schengen zone at risk.

Relations with Turkey have been increasingly tense, with Erdogan even threatening to flood Europe with refugees if Ankara did not get more help during a November visit by Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Supporting Athens

Speaking in Vienna, Tusk said EU members had to “fully apply” the Schengen border code and restore effective controls on the EU's external frontier in Greece.

He said he was “opening a new chapter of our struggle with the migration crisis called 'Back to Schengen'.”

“It's not an easy decision but the truth is there is no alternative to (Schengen),” he said.

“We must face together the humanitarian consequences of our decision. The country which we must support in particular is Greece.”

“A test of our European-ness will be, on the one hand, going back to Schengen, and on the other (having) a readiness to stand by Athens during these hard times.”

But in reference to unilateral new measures by Austria and countries through the western Balkans to limit migrant numbers, Tusk called on EU members to “coordinate more and better”.

“It is natural that important decisions are taken in the capitals but we need to make sure that these decisions are coordinated so they are effective, reinforce each other instead of eroding trust further,” Tusk said in Slovenia.

The tightening of border restrictions has led to a bottleneck of migrants and refugees in Greece, with several thousand stranded on the border with non-EU Macedonia.

On Monday Macedonian police fired tear gas at hundreds of people who tried to break through a border fence.

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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