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Closure of Balkan route divides Europe

Elizabeth SchumacherMarch 10, 2016

Germany has slammed several countries in the Balkans for shutting their gates on the thousands of refugees trying to head west. Yet neighboring Austria, which often takes its cue from Berlin, has hailed the decision.

Griechenland Flüchtlinge an der Grenze zu Mazedonien bei Idomeni
Image: Reuters/S. Nenov

The European Union on Thursday was reeling from the decision by several eastern European countries to close their borders to migrants. Effectively slamming shut the so-called "Balkan route" and leaving thousands of asylum seekers stranded in no-man's land, the call by Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia to shut their frontiers illustrated how divided the EU remains on how to handle the refugee crisis.

For Germany's part, it became apparent that Berlin had stark differences of opinion not only with the Balkan countries, but with neighboring Austria as well.

Infografik geschlossene Balkanroute Englisch

"The problem isn't solved," said Chancellor Angela Merkel in an interview with public broadcaster MDR on Wednesday about the situation in the Balkans. "We must always, as 28 nations, find a common solution," and not make up rules individually, said the chancellor.

"Sure, it brings us less refugees … but it brings Greece more, and that's not sustainable."

Vienna: Germany awakening false hope

Austria fired back at Merkel's comments, accusing Berlin of peddling false hope to refugees and not facing the problem head-on.

"The Balkan route is closed and will be for some time," said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner to German newspaper "Die Welt."

The minister made it clear that she saw Germany's open-door policy as responsible for the drama now unfolding at border camps like that in Idomeni, Greece, where some 14,000 migrants are living in deplorable conditions at the Macedonian border.

"If you awaken false hope, then thousands of people will try to make their way" to the continent's richest countries, Mikl-Leitner told the paper.

Johanna Mikl-Leitner Österreich Gespräch Presse
"The uncontrolled stream of people on this route must become history," said Mikl-LeitnerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Fohringer

Can't ferry people around 'like sacks of potatoes'

Peter Altmaier, who aside from occupying various other cabinet positions now finds himself Merkel's refugee coordinator, brushed away concerns that EU harmony was breaking down completely. In a separate interview with "Die Welt," he criticized the closing of borders but expressed hope that the EU's planned deal with Turkey could go far in resolving the issue.

"This isn't the first time that the EU has had the challenge of reaching a common position," he said, downplaying concerns that the strife between member states, already placing the border-free Schengen Area in danger, could have even greater reverberations.

On the other hand, he added: "we find border closures … unhelpful." Further criticizing a call by some countries, such as Croatia, to send refugees back to Greece, where most of them arrive, Altmaier told the daily "we can't solve the problem by sending refugees back and forth like sacks of potatoes."

For now, Altmaier was keen to sing the praises of a recent EU-Turkey summit that yielded a draft deal between the two parties to reduce the number of migrants trying to flee Turkish shores for Greek ones.

"This is the first time we have a real chance to solve the problem," he said. Not everyone was so confident in the deal, however. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday that the plan was "tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country, " and was therefore "not consistent with European law [or] international law."