Austrian president criticises government’s asylum proposals

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen used an interview published on Saturday to criticise proposals put forward by the government to make it impossible to claim asylum on European soil.

Austrian president criticises government's asylum proposals
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen (L) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: AFP

“Whoever comes to our country and applies for asylum should be able to do so,” Van der Bellen said in an interview with the Österreich newspaper, adding that those facing persecution had a right to protection under the Geneva Convention.

Austria's conservative-far right government is using its current presidency of the EU to put forward its own hardline positions on migration and asylum policy, and has formed a controversial “axis of the willing” with like-minded ministers in Berlin and Rome on the issue.

While saying the question of migration was “significant”, Van der Bellen added: “At the moment, the number of those seeking asylum is falling markedly, the situation is under control.”

As for the possibility of “holding centres” in North Africa to process migrants, Van der Bellen said he saw “many unanswered questions”.

“Most importantly, no country has said it is willing to host them. Our focus should be on addressing the reasons why people flee,” he went on.

He also expressed scepticism as to whether the Austrian armed forces had the capacity to carry out missions in North Africa supporting the EU border agency Frontex, as suggested by Interior Minister Herbert Kickl and Defence Minister Mario Kunasek, both from the far-right FPÖ.

Van der Bellen also spoke out against the possible criminalisation of those who save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean.

“When someone saves a small child who's fallen into the Danube from drowning, we celebrate them as having saved a life. When the same person saves a child from drowning in the Mediterranean, they've also saved a life and they shouldn't be brought before a court,” he said.

The post of president is largely ceremonial in Austria but Van der Bellen has criticised several positions taken by the government since it took office late last year.

Van der Bellen is a former leader of the Green party who defeated far-right candidate Norbert Hofer to become president in 2016.

READ ALSO: No firm EU agreement on Austrian proposals for reducing migration


‘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.