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Europe can't take in 'new wave of refugees'

June 22, 2018

Austria will be taking over the presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1. The country sees itself as a bridge to central Europe and the western Balkans, conservative Austrian politician Martin Engelberg tells DW.

Refugees on the Slovenia-Austria border
Image: picture-alliance/epa/C. Bruna

DW: What are Austria's priorities for the presidency of the Council of the European Union?

Martin Engelberg: To begin with, the most important thing is that there must be no doubt whatsoever that this government is pro-European. The consideration of which policy along these lines is the right one has to do with the fact that [Austrian Chancellor Sebastian] Kurz has in recent years said that the most important issue for Europe at the moment is internal and external security. This means securing borders on the one hand and establishing security within the EU on the other. The point here is that, for one thing, the situation has actually worsened, or perhaps that is how it has been perceived by the general public. That is why there is a mandate to the EU to ensure security, find a common foreign policy and also a common defense policy. All other issues are, firstly, less important and, secondly, should be resolved at local, regional level.

Read more: Austria's Sebastian Kurz wants a migration 'axis of the willing' with Germany, Italy

Jean Asselborn, who is responsible for immigration and asylum in the EU, has said, "we do not want Visegrad plus Austria." What is Austria's relationship with the Visegrad states, meaning Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland?

I consider any suspicion that Austria wanted to, or should become part of the Visegrad states to be absolutely inappropriate, actually unfriendly. This government has demonstrated, in every respect, that this is not an issue at all, nor is it up for discussion. In our opinion, there are an increasing number of countries and people in the European Union who sympathize with our position and this government, and especially with the chancellor, not least in Germany. I would be very wary, particularly as an outsider, of making such assessments.

Martin Engelberg
Engelberg is a member of the conservative Austrian People's PartyImage: DW/Adelheid Feilcke

Having said that, Austria could have a positive influence on promoting tolerance in society, press freedom, anti-Semitism and so on. Do you see any role for Austria in this way?

Absolutely. I believe that this is precisely the function that Austria can and will have here, that of a bridge function. I do indeed believe that there is a good approach to Austria in the former countries that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also a better understanding, perhaps sometimes better than with German politicians. And this could actually lead to a loosening-up of positions, for example in Hungary. That is also where this government has potential, and that is also what we are working towards.

Read more: Refugee crisis: "Without human rights,we are lost"

The so-called new Balkan route is arousing concerns of a new influx of refugees. What information do you have on whether there really are new migration flows and can Austria really close its borders?

Evidently, the government has been informed that a new Balkan route is emerging. I do not believe that, in light of the way things went in 2015, we can simply stand by and watch. The sooner you react, the better. And I think we will not be able to avoid closing these routes, as we did back in 2015. It's difficult. Even then, many people were saying that it was impossible, but in fact it worked, and I am convinced that it will work again this time because we will not be able to absorb a new wave of refugees in European communities.

Martin Engelberg is a parliamentarian from the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), which leads the country's ruling government coalition along with its junior partners, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).