Migrant crisis: EU announces emergency meeting

Hungary shuts main land route as Austria indicates tough border controls with neighbour

Austrian police close the main motorway which crosses the border from Hungary as migrants try to reach Vienna on foot. Video: Reuters

 

An emergency meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers has been convened for next Tuesday in a bid to secure agreement on a cohesive EU response to the migration crisis, after a similar meeting in Brussels on Monday broke down without agreement.

Amid calls from German chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart Werner Faymann for an EU summit next week, the Luxembourg presidency of the Council of the European Union announced plans for an extraordinary meeting of justice ministers in order to agree to a mechanism to relocate 120,000 refugees across the European Union.

A leaders’ summit could still be called, as the EU grapples with a crisis that has revealed sharp divisions between member states.

As Hungary imposed stringent border checks on its border with Serbia, and considered extending a 175 km fence to its border with Romania, east European countries criticised suggestions from Berlin that EU structural funds could be withheld from countries opposed to the EU’s relocation plan.

The Czech state secretary for the EU said the suggestion, voiced by German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere in Brussels, had no legal basis.

“German threats that central Europe will be punished by cutting cohesion funds are empty but very damaging to all,” he tweeted, while Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico said that countries had never before been punished for having different opinions.

Such a move would mean “the end of the EU”, he said.

A day after the meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers broke down without agreement after member states clashed over the European Commission’s mandatory relocation plan for 120,000 refugees, the Slovakian leader reiterated his country’s opposition to mandatory quotas.

“We will never accept mandatory quotas for distribution of refugees,” Mr Fico said.

“Never. Even if we stay alone. We consider them irrational, harmful and they will never save anyone nor solve anything.”

His comments illustrate the scale of the challenge facing the European Union as it tries to reach a consensus on the proposal.

EU criticised

Addressing the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, criticised the response of the European Union to the crisis.

He said that the bloc should be “acting together in order to grant protection to those who need protection.

“In the middle of this chaotic situation, member states try to take their own measures,” he said.

The Council of Europe became the latest body to criticise the Hungarian stance, with general secretary Thorbjorn Jagland confirming that he is to write to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán about new legislation in the context of the migration crisis.

Last week the EU’s human rights body, of which Hungary is a member, warned members that they must adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights in their treatment of migrants.

Earlier in Berlin, following a meeting with Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that the impulse to open Germany’s borders was “the right one” but “we need to do these things so our security interests are served”.

Ms Merkel said Germany, Austria and Sweden could not handle the situation on their own.

She also appeared to row back on an apparent threat by Mr de Maiziere that the EU should consider imposing financial penalties on member states that do not take their share of refugees.

Ms Merkel called for a return to a more European spirit, adding: “Threats are not the right way to achieve agreement.”

As Austria said it intended to impose stricter controls on its border with Hungary at midnight on Tuesday, the European Commission confirmed it had received notification from Austria of its decision to reintroduce border controls with Hungary, Italy, Slovenia and Slovakia.

“The temporary reintroduction of border controls between member states is an exceptional possibility explicitly foreseen in and regulated by the Schengen Borders Code, in case of a crisis situation,” the European Commission said in a statement.

“The current situation in Austria, prima facie, appears to be a situation covered by the rules.”

Hungary Border Shut

Hungary’s government shut the main land route for migrants into the EU on Tuesday, taking matters into its own hands to halt Europe’s unprecedented influx of refugees while EU member states failed to agree a plan to distribute them.

Crowds built up at Serbia’s northern border with Hungary, their passage blocked by a razor wire fence.

Under new rules that took effect from midnight, Hungary says anyone seeking asylum at the Serbian border will automatically be turned back.

Anyone trying to sneak through will face jail.

Hungary said on Tuesday authorities had ruled on 16 asylum requests under a new border regime on its southern frontier with Serbia, rejecting all 16 within a matter of hours.

Another 32 claims were filed and were being processed, Gyorgy Bakondi, security adviser to prime minister Viktor Orban told a news conference.

He said 174 people had been caught crossing the border illegally and would face criminal prosecution.

Mr Orban, says he is acting to save Europe’s “Christian values” by blocking the main overland route used by mainly Muslim refugees, through the Balkans and across his country via its border with Serbia.

Families with small children sat in fields beneath the former communist country’s new 3.5-metre high fence, which runs almost the length of the border.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been arriving at the EU’s southern and eastern edges and making their to countries further north and west, in the greatest migration to western Europe since the second World War.

Fitzgerald statement

Speaking on Morning Ireland after the breakdown of the meeting in Brussels, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said the majority of the 28 member states supported the initiative to relocate 120,000 people, but some central and eastern European countries were “concerned”.

“The majority of member states favoured going ahead with the relocation of 120,000.

“If there had have been a vote, it would have been passed undoubtedly. But there wasn’t agreement from all member states- some member states wanted more time,” she said.

“Clearly people are coming at this from very different positions. Particularly, some of the central and eastern European countries were concerned. But the point was made again and again, particularly by western European countries, how important European solidarity is.”

She said the issue may come down to a majority vote, but that a decision involving all member states was the aim.

Ms Fitzgerald also said EU ministers had highlighted the need to further support the UNHCR.

She said: “The frontline efforts to support these refugees will need more support so that they don’t feel driven to the length and extremes that we’ve seen.”

She said “the majority” of the first 600 migrants already agreed to be taken in by Ireland would likely arrive before the end of the year.

Additional reporting: Reuters