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EU set to propose plan on asylum seekers, but Austria warns against quotas

Five years after Europe’s migrant crisis, Brussels will propose on Wednesday that member states share the responsibility for asylum seekers under a “compulsory solidarity mechanism”. But it could spark outrage from countries such as Austria, whose Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned against any attempts to force EU countries to take in migrants.

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum will be unveiled by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas.

Johansson wants the 27 member states to commit to sharing the burden of handling asylum claims from migrants arriving on the bloc’s shores. “It’s obvious to everybody that ad hoc solidarity or voluntary solidarity is not enough. That has been proven for many years now,” she said. “It has to be mandatory.”

The plan will make showing solidarity with all EU countries on the front lines – often Greece, Italy or Malta – compulsory when they are “under pressure” from arrivals.

It may mean aid will no longer be limited to EU countries to where asylum seekers are relocated, but will be directed to other nations to return refused asylum seekers back to their country of origin.

Outcry expected

It is hoped that this measure will pacify EU countries like those of the Visegrad group – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – who have persistently failed to welcome asylum seekers.

Still, it may prove tough to pass. Speaking to AFP in an exclusive interview, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has already warned the EU against forcing states to take in asylum seekers. “We find that the distribution in Europe (of asylum seekers) has failed and many states reject this. It won’t work like this,” the 34-year-old conservative leader said.

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Austria and other smaller countries – some of them, such as Hungary, criticised by Brussels over their anti-immigration stance and on rule-of-law issues – have spoken out in the past against any mandatory asylum-seeker distribution.

European migration policy was again in the headlines earlier this month following a devastating fire at an overcrowded camp for migrants and asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos which left thousands homeless.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said last week that the new proposals would include plans to strengthen border security and return failed asylum seekers, which Kurz and allies are in favour of, while also including “a new strong solidarity mechanism.”

Seeking alliances

Kurz said he welcomed that the European Commission was addressing the topic of asylum and migration.

“We can only solve this topic all together… Better protection of the (EU’s) outer borders, a joined fight against smugglers, but also joined aid where it is needed (in countries where refugees come from), that is the path that is needed,” he said.

Kurz, pushing to make his mark in European politics, has also sought allies on other topics, such as when he worked with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark – as the so-called “Frugal Four” – to oppose direct EU aid to coronavirus-hit countries as proposed by Germany and France.

“The European Union is more than just Germany and France… As a small or medium-sized state of course one has to always look for alliances, and in an EU with 27 member states one can only assert ideas if there are others that support them,” he told AFP in an office in the chancellery.

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Coronavirus ‘challenge’

Kurz became the world’s youngest chancellor when his conservative People’s Party (OeVP) formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in 2017.

The coalition fell apart in 2019 after a corruption scandal engulfed the far-right FPOe leader, leading to fresh elections in which Kurz’s party again gathered the most votes.

Kurz then formed a new coalition with the Greens and has governed the Alpine country of nearly nine million people since January.

Kurz said fighting the coronavirus pandemic was “a very big challenge”.

“I am still relatively young, but I have been part of the Austrian government for many years and I thought I had already been through a lot politically… The corona crisis now exceeds all previous experiences of course,” he said.

The country has so far been spared the brunt of the crisis, reporting almost 40,000 cases with 771 deaths to date, but infections have surged again in recent weeks.

This has led to the government to extend mandatory mask wearing and re-instate some of the other restrictions imposed earlier this year to stem the spread of the virus.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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