Germany agrees not to push refugees back into Austria

Sebastian Kurz insists Vienna wants ‘Europe without internal borders’

German interior minister Horst Seehofer and  Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz: Austria has accepted  150,000 migrants, and is not “happy taking lessons from those who have not taken in proportionately similar numbers”. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

German interior minister Horst Seehofer and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz: Austria has accepted 150,000 migrants, and is not “happy taking lessons from those who have not taken in proportionately similar numbers”. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

 

Austria and Germany on Thursday appeared to finesse a solution to their looming dispute over border camps and refugees at a meeting in Vienna.

German minister Horst Seehofer told Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz that Berlin had no intention of penalising Austria over migrants that crossed its territory from Greece and Italy. These make up three-quarters of those arriving in Austria.

The planned Bavarian processing centres would send those refugees, who had lodged initial asylum applications in Greece or Italy, back to those countries in line with the rules of the EU’s Dublin regulation and not back to Austria, Mr Seehofer said. The Dublin regulation states that the member state where an asylum applicant first lands is responsible for them.

“Austria will not be held responsible for migrants it is not responsible for,” Mr Seehofer told journalists.

If, by this sleight of hand, Austria was not the target, then talk of Austrian national measures against Italy, seen as threatening an unravelling of the passport-free Schengen system, was now redundant .

After the meeting, a relieved Mr Kurz told reporters that Germany would take “no measures” that would negatively impact Austria, and that Mr Seehofer was planning to continue discussions next week ahead of the informal home affairs ministers meeting in Innsbruck with his Austrian and Italian counterparts.

EU presidency

Crucially, Germany would also engage in talks with Italy and Greece to secure their co-operation with the new measures, in Mr Seehofer’s words, to “close” the Mediterranean illegal and secondary flows of migrants.

Speaking earlier about the Austrian EU presidency, the beginning of which this week was in danger of being overshadowed by the row with Germany, the 31-year-old Mr Kurz was upbeat about its prospects.

Its theme, “a Europe that protects”, will inevitably be dominated by the migration issue and he was already claiming credit for what he claimed was an important shift in focus at last week’s EU summit from the internal to external dimensions of migration. That means, as he admitted, that although work on the Dublin regulation reform will continue, there is little prospect of a breakthrough, notably on burden-sharing.

Mr Kurz, who is sharing power with the extreme right Freedom Party, insisted that Austria wanted a European solution to the migration challenge – “we want  Europe without internal borders”. It took its responsibilities to migrants seriously, he said.

Less friendly perspective

Last year Austria, which has a population of eight million, took in 150,000 migrants, he said, “and we are not happy taking lessons from those who have not taken in proportionately similar numbers”.

But comments about integration by vice chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, who denied that anti-Semitism had any place in his party, reflected a somewhat different, less friendly Austrian perspective.

He complained about the educational levels of many migrants and the reality that they came from patriarchal societies with different values. Statistics showed, he said, that “many are neither willing nor able to integrate”. He cited a failure to learn German, attitudes to the equality of women, to forced marriages and to female genital mutilation. They did not find work and had to rely on welfare, he claimed.

Mr Kurz echoed his concerns, but sought to distinguish between the integration of ex-Yugoslav or German migrants and those from eastern European countries, which “works very well”, and those such as Afghans and Chechens, who represented “significantly larger problems”.