EU leaders vow to intensify efforts to tackle refugee crisis

Flows of migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey remain much too high, says EU

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on the first day of a two-day summit pledged to intensify their efforts to tackle the refugee crisis, revealing growing frustration that the number of refugees arriving from Turkey through Greece shows no sign of abating.

Draft conclusions of a communiqué expected to be approved by the EU leaders stated that “the flows of migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey remain much too high” and called for “a substantial and sustainable reduction of the number”.

Amid continuing frustration about Greece’s ability to police its borders, EU leaders were to hold a round-table discussion on the issue over dinner last night, despite continuing divisions among member states on how best to handle a crisis that saw more than one million refugees enter the EU last year.

A planned meeting of 11 EU leaders that had been scheduled to take place in the Austrian embassy in Brussels before the summit was cancelled after Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu called off his planned trip following Wednesday's car bomb in Ankara. In a joint statement, EU leaders condemned the attacks, saying: "Acts of terrorism, by whomever and wherever they take place, are always unacceptable."

German chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart, Werner Faymann, had been hoping to secure support for a resettlement plan for refugees at the pre-summit meeting. This would have seen a group of EU countries volunteer to accept Syrian refugees direct from camps in Turkey.

Cap on migrants

In a move that is likely to rankle with EU officials, Austria’s prime minister defended his country’s decision to introduce a daily cap on migrants entering the country, despite a warning from the

European Commission

that the move broke EU rules.

Vienna announced earlier this week that it would admit no more than 3,200 refugees a day from today. It also plans to cap asylum claims to 80 a day.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos confirmed on Thursday that he had written to the Austrian government warning that the move was not compatible with EU legislation.

“The Austrians are obliged to accept asylum applications without putting a cap,” the Greek commissioner said. “It is true they are overwhelmed. But, on the other hand, there are some principles and laws that all countries must respect and apply.”


But, arriving at the summit, Mr Faymann struck a defiant tone.

"Politically, I say we'll stick with it . . . It is unthinkable for Austria to take on the asylum seekers for the whole of Europe, " he said . "After 100,000 refugees, we can't tell the Austrian people that it will just continue like this. That's why I tell the EU: we set a good example, but to think that you don't have to do anything, then I have to say it is time for the EU to act."

Austria is one of a number of EU countries that have reintroduced border checks as it struggles to respond to the refugee crisis, a move that has thrown the future of the Schengen free-travel area into doubt.

Bulgaria on Thursday became the latest EU country to deploy the army to help tackle migration. The parliament in Sofia voted to permit the army to police the country's borders to stave off an influx of refugees.

The EU member state, which is not in the Schengen passport-free travel area, saw a sharp increase in refugee arrivals in the early years of the Syrian civil war, though it did not experience the sharp rise in numbers experienced by some of its neighbours last year. Nonetheless, more than 30,000 migrants entered Bulgaria last year, three times more than in 2014. Most of those moved on to other EU countries.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

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