Broad welcome for EU-Turkey refugee plan

Move by Austria to cap numbers of refugees angers European Commission

EU countries have agreed to prioritise a plan to stem the numbers of refugees arriving from Turkey, as countries remained divided on the refugee crisis and Austria remained defiant about its controversial decision to introduce migrant caps.

At a summit dominated by Britain’s new settlement ahead of a referendum on EU membership, the union’s leaders also discussed the migration crisis with divisions among member states showing no signs of dissipating.

Thursday night’s discussion on the refugee crisis, which had been expected to conclude after dinner, continued for more than six hours, amid sharp divisions among member states on how best to tackle the refugee crisis.

An earlier meeting with Turkey's prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was cancelled after he chose not to travel to Brussels following Wednesday's bomb attack in Ankara. EU leaders instead agreed to hold an EU-Turkey summit next month.

Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, under continuing domestic political pressure over the refugee crisis, welcomed what she described as progress at the EU summit, despite tensions between member states. "The important statement for me today is that we have not only reaffirmed the EU-Turkey action plan, but we have said it is our priority," she said.

Much of Thursday night’s discussion focused on Austria’s decision to introduce a refugee cap. The move, which came into force yesterday, will see the country limit the number of refugees admitted to the country to 3,200, while capping the number of asylum claims to 80 per day.

Austria’s interior minister said that these restrictions could be increased if needed.

The move has elicited a furious response from the European Commission, with migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos writing to the Austrian government warning that it was not compatible with EU legislation.

Dr Merkel stopped short of criticising Austria’s decision, noting that the move “drove home again to us how urgently solutions are needed”.

Meanwhile, Greece sought to secure a commitment from member states that they would not impose border limits on incoming refugees before the next EU summit, with prime minister Alexis Tsipras threatening to veto the summit conclusions.

A growing number of countries, led by the Visegrad group of four central and east European countries, are advocating that Macedonia seals its border with Greece, a move that would effectively strand thousands of refugees in Greece.

The so-called "Plan B" was dismissed by EU officials who stressed the need for a common EU solution. European Council president Donald Tusk said it was important to "avoid a battle among plans A, B and C".

"It makes no sense at all, as it creates divisions within the European Union, " he said. "Instead, we must look for a synthesis of different approaches. There is no good alternative to a comprehensive European plan."

Mr Tsipras, who held talks with Ms Merkel and France’s president François Hollande on the fringes of the summit yesterday morning, has argued that his country has been doing its best to handle an unprecedented influx of refugees into the EU, most of whom arrive through Greece. He called for there to be no “unilateral” action by any member state.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent