Merkel, EU headed for showdown over border closures to stem migration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that she is against closing borders to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, setting up a fight over the issue at an EU summit in Brussels.

Europe has struggled with a surge of migrants and asylum seekers that brought more than 1 million people to its shores last year, with some 135,000 more following since the start of 2016. Most have made their way from Greece to northern Europe via the Balkans.

The countries along that route have sought to stem the flow through border restrictions, but sparked a humanitarian crisis in Greece, which was already overwhelmed with thousands of stranded migrants.

EU leaders were to consider declaring the Western Balkans route "closed," but diplomats said Merkel was among those opposing the move, even though her country has been a top destination for migrants.

"When it comes to the question of how we get the number of refugees to decrease not just for some, few countries, but for all countries - including Greece - it cannot be about closing something or other," Merkel told journalists in Brussels.

"This is a European problem. So [we] have to find collective solutions," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said.

But leaders from the countries along the Balkan route are insisting on its closure.

"We will close all routes, the Balkan route too," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said. "It has been for many too easy to simply wave through people."

Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic indicated that he will push for a message out of the summit that "this Balkan route will be closed," while Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar described the move as absolutely necessary.

French President Francois Hollande noted that the route is for all intents and purposes already shut down. Croatian and Slovenian police reported no migrant arrivals on Sunday.

More than 13,000 people are waiting to cross from Greece into Macedonia, aid agencies estimated Monday. Local media reported that the border between the two countries was closed, including for freight trains.

The leaders are expected to pledge support to Greece, promising that the EU will "do its utmost to help manage the situation that has arisen," according to a draft of their joint statement, seen by dpa.

There are concerns that the stranded migrants may eventually look for another route to northern Europe, for instance via Albania and Italy.

Merkel called for a "sustainable solution" to the crisis together with Turkey, the main launch pad for migrants trying to reach the EU.

The bloc wants the country to hold back asylum seekers and is now pushing Ankara to take back economic migrants who have arrived in Greece, but do not qualify for asylum.

Turkey and the EU are also discussing whether Ankara could take back Syrians from Greece, in return for which the bloc would do more to resettle asylum seekers directly from Turkey, sources in Brussels said.

Hollande spoke against such a move, arguing that it would make more sense to relocate Syrians directly out of Greece. About half of the people reaching the EU are Syrians fleeing war.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was expected to present "quite ambitious ideas" on tackling the migration crisis at the summit, which is now expected to extend into the evening.

Davutoglu called for "solidarity" as he arrived in Brussels, noting that Turkey and the EU needed one another.

"We have to see the whole picture – not just irregular migration, but [that] the whole future of our continent is on the table," he said.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed hope that Davutoglu will return with 3 billion euros in promised aid from the summit, saying it was promised four months ago and is "yet to be given."

Davutoglu's talks with EU leaders will be overshadowed, however, by the government's takeover of the Zaman opposition newspaper.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel called for an "honest" exchange with Davutoglu, saying "it cannot be that because of the refugee issue other values that are important for Europe, such as freedom of the media, just get thrown overboard."

"This is a matter of very considerable concern now for a lot of countries," Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny added.

Turkish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas, meanwhile, took aim at Merkel. During a visit to Brussels, he accused the German government of remaining "silent" on human rights violations in Turkey and Merkel of "not behaving in line with European values."

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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