EU reactions to Austria's refugee limit highlight diverging policies

Austria unveiled a plan Wednesday to cap the number of new asylum seekers it will take in coming years, prompting reactions by politicians across Europe and highlighting a divide in how governments plan to handle a record influx of refugees.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to push forward with an open-door migration policy for her country, criticizing Austria for capping the number of new asylum seekers, German President Joachim Gauck said that Europe will likely need additional measures to limit immigration.

Meanwhile, European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned that Wednesday's move by Austria was unlikely to be effective, but the Austria plan prompted Serbia to close its borders to immigrants unless they are bound for Austria or Germany.

The contrasting positions on how to handle migration highlight diverging policies across Europe, where a record number of refugees hope they can head to escape conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

But the massive influx has led to growing tension across Europe, with countries closing borders, introducing border controls and building walls to keep migration at bay. Against this backdrop, a coordinated plan across the continent is still missing.

The European Union and European governments collectively failed at handling the refugee crisis in 2015, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a report on European migration Tuesday.

Austria's decision to limit refugee numbers to 37,500 this year - a sharp drop from the 120,000 asylum claims the Alpine country was expecting this year - will likely complicate negotiations with Turkey later this week, where the brunt of immigrants enter Europe, Merkel said Wednesday.

The Austrian plan will decrease the limit of arrivals each year until it reaches 25,000 for the first half of 2019.

Rather than limiting the number of refugees, Merkel - who was under attack Wednesday during a visit to the Christian Social Union party, the sister party to her Christian Democrats and one that has been pushing hard for controls on immigration inflows - stressed that a fairer distribution of refugees across the European Union was needed.

While Merkel has promised to bring the number of arrivals in her country down, she has defied public criticism by opposing an upper limit.

Gauck took a different stance than his chancellor, saying European countries might have to set up additional measures to limit immigration.

Gauck said he expected "that several regulation and limitation measures would take effect this year."

Curbing immigration is a necessary tool for European countries to consider because it would secure acceptance for migrants among their citizens. The president - who holds a largely ceremonial role - made his comments in a highly anticipated keynote speech on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

While countries had a duty to help refugees, limiting immigration was not unethical if it served this purpose, Gauck told the assembled global leaders and business executives.

"If democrats would not talk about limitations, we would leave the discussion to populists and xenophobes," argued Gauck.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned that Wednesday's move by Austria was unlikely to curb migration flows.

"It will certainly prevent nobody fleeing the Islamic State or the barrel bombs of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad from coming, just because somebody says we now have an upper limit," Schulz noted.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann acknowledged that his new plan was a "less than ideal solution." 

At the same time, he said it was also meant as "wake-up call" for the European Union.

In response to the Austrian plan, Serbia, which lies on the main path through the Balkan for migrants seeking to reach Western Europe, said it will stop all migrants from transiting its territory unless they say they are refugees who plan to ask for shelter in Austria or Germany.

“Based on the decision of the Austrian government ... [Serbia will] not allow migrants to continue unless they state intent to seek asylum in the territory of Austria and Germany,” Serbian Welfare Minister Aleksandar Vulin told reporters Wednesday in a migrant reception centre.

Effective “as of today,” the measure will be implemented on the border with Macedonia, he said, elaborating that a column will be added to the registration form asking migrants where they intend to seek asylum.

Merkel, who is still seeking a European solution to the migration problem, stressed that there are several opportunities to coordinate policies in the coming weeks.

She pointed towards talks with Turkey on Friday, next week's international donor conference on the Middle East, and February's European Union leaders summit as opportunities to map out a solution.

Last update: Wed, 20/01/2016 - 23:24

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