In a bid to ease the tension between Greece and Austria over border management, the man who has been in the middle of the Greek and European fire over his government's decision to set strict limits on the number of refugees and migrants crossing into the country, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz speaks exclusively to Kathimerini.
Kurz offers his explanation of why Austria decided to close its borders and how diplomatic relations with Athens stand right now, but declines to discuss under what conditions the country would consider reopening crossings. Moreover, while criticizing Greece for failing to protect the European Union's external border and its allowing refugees and migrants to move on, Kurz also adds that Austria will be giving Greece and Lebanon 5 million euros in humanitarian aid.
Austria has been criticized for taking “unilateral” action by closing its borders, without consulting with its EU peers. What would you need to see from Europe in order to fully open your borders again and scrap cap on asylum seekers in your country?
We fully support a European solution that would in particular consist of securing our external borders again, drastically reducing the number of migrants coming to the EU and providing more humanitarian aid in the countries of origin, in particular in Syria and its neighboring countries. We have to stop the policy of waving migrants through as fast as possible. Austria accepted 90,000 asylum requests last year and is therefore per capita the second-most affected European country after Sweden, even before Germany. This year Austria is ready to accept another 37,500 asylum seekers, which is still more than most other EU countries do and more than those who currently are in Greece.
In your opinion, EU policy failed so far (hotspots, relocations, etc). But what is your proposal for an EU solution to the migrant crisis?
As I said before, the European Union has to secure its external borders again so that we can preserve a Europe without internal borders. Asylum seekers should in general not be allowed to choose the country where they claim asylum. It is also important to provide more humanitarian assistance for the countries of origin and in the Aegean Sea.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last Sunday that she found Austria’s “unilateral” decision “a little unfortunate” and described how it derailed a timetable for a series of EU measures and meetings to tackle the migrant crisis. There was hope that until the regular summit on March 18 there could be some progress. What is your reply to the above statement and was Germany informed about your move to impose border restrictions ahead of time?
Austria has always been in close contact with the German government. We have also always supported a European solution as well as the ongoing negotiations with Turkey. The EU-Turkey action plan has to be implemented; this implies Turkish efforts to secure the border and crack down on people smugglers. But in the meantime we had to take national measures, since we cannot again take in another 90,000 persons or even more. Furthermore, Chancellor Merkel clearly said yesterday that she will take any refugees directly from Greece and that she wants to stop the policy of waving through.
Do you feel the German- Austrian relationships are going through a crisis at the moment?
Germany is our most important neighbor and trading partner. We have traditionally good relations and I am of course in regular contact with Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peter Altmaier.
Did you expect that closing your borders would create massive problems to Greece, to the extent of a humanitarian crisis?
We have to support Greece and other countries currently coping with the influx of migrants. This is why Austria will provide 5 million euros in humanitarian aid for Greece and other countries particularly affected such as Lebanon. I’d hope that other countries would follow this example. I fully support additional European measures aimed at providing humanitarian aid and building shelters for migrants in Greece.
Are you worried about the deterioration of the diplomatic relationships with Greece?
Austria is a partner and friend of Greece. We have of course taken note of the Greek government’s decision to call the ambassador back to Athens last week. I hope that the Greek ambassador could use the chance to inform Athens over the last few days about the exceptional burden Austria is currently carrying. We are the second-most affected country in the EU. Austria is a transit country and a country of destination at the same time. We, of course, also see the difficult situation Greece is facing and are therefore providing humanitarian aid.
What do you think the Greek government should do in the near future for you to change your position?
Greece should secure the external borders in the Aegean Sea with European help and provide shelter, food and medical care for the migrants currently in the country. We are supporting Greece to cope with this crisis because we’re well aware that Greek borders are our European borders as well. It’s a common challenge as well as a common responsibility.
Some critics say that the “hardening” of your position regarding refugees is mainly due to the upcoming elections, that by toughening your stance you are paving the way for future collaboration with the Freedom Party. How do you respond to that?
We are at the same time a country of destination and a transit country and believe me, being a country of destination is by far more challenging! I am not only minister of foreign affairs but also minister of integration, so I know what I am talking about. We carry an exceptional burden and therefore had to act until a European solution is found.
Could the fact that a series of member states have taken national measures and not followed EU decisions and international laws mark the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it? Does that worry you?
I am convinced that a European solution will be found. National measures taken in the meantime do not make a European solution more difficult, quite to the contrary. The European Union will successfully overcome this crisis also.