Austria plans to use its upcoming presidency of the European Union this year to shift the bloc’s focus from resettling refugees within the EU towards keeping further waves of migrants outside the bloc’s external borders, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Friday (9 March).
Kurz is governing in coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, making Austria the only Western European country to have a far-right party in government. This follows an election last year in which Europe’s migration crisis dominated the agenda.
Austria will take over the rotating six-month presidency of the EU from Bulgaria in July. Bulgaria’s coalition government consists of the centre-right GERB party of PM Boyko Borissov and the United Patriots, three rightist forces of which at least one, Ataka, can be described as far-right.
Borissov has recently said he wanted Bulgaria and Austria to have a “joint presidency”.
The EU has been bitterly divided over immigration, with eastern member states like Poland and Hungary refusing to take in their share of refugees under a resettlement system. Kurz, an immigration hard-liner, has pledged to use his good relations, particularly with Hungary, to bring the two sides closer.
“Our aim is very clear – that in Europe there should not only be a dispute over redistribution (of refugees) but also, at last, a shift of focus towards securing external borders,” Kurz told a news conference outlining Austria’s priorities for the presidency.
Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have repeatedly rebuffed requests from Brussels and western EU states to host some of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees that have streamed into the EU since 2015.
The bitter row has undermined trust between the bloc’s members and weakened their unity.
Under Kurz, Austria has moved from calling on the eastern Europeans to carry their share of the burden to criticising the debate on quotas and calling for a new system altogether.
Kurz has said there is no point arguing over the current system of quotas because eastern states refuse to accept them. He has argued in favour of a system in which migrants rescued in the Mediterranean are returned to Africa rather than brought to Europe, and has pledged to stop illegal immigration altogether.
Under its previous government, Austria teamed up with the Visegrad countries and Serbia and Macedonia to stop refugee flows via the so-called Western Balkans route, an initiative outside the EU framework.
“Protection (of borders) alone will not solve the migration question but the decisive question is what happens to people after their rescue – are they brought to central Europe or are they taken back to the countries of origin or other safe regions where they can be provided for?” Kurz said.
Asked what solutions he had in mind, he said expanding the mandate of Frontex, the EU border agency, was one option but there were others and it would depend on talks with leaders at various events, including a summit on migration and security on 20 September.
Other priorities Austria has set itself include promoting Europe’s competitiveness and working towards EU accession for Western Balkan countries, particularly Serbia and Montenegro, he said.
Kurz added that he also hoped the bloc would make progress on ensuring internet companies like Facebook and Google pay more tax on profits in the countries where those profits are made.