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Fences and walls along the Balkan route

Barbara Wesel
September 24, 2016

Austria was instrumental in the closing of the Balkan route six months ago. Now a meeting in Vienna has taken stock of the closure. Germany's chancellor has emphasized common goals, as Barbara Wesel reports from Vienna.

Wien EU Gipfel Balkan Route
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C.Bruna

It is the third such meeting in Vienna, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long established herself at the head of the movement: "We have come a long way," compared to the situation a year ago, she summarizes. Back then, she embodied Europe's "welcoming culture": No one talks much about that anymore. Now there are calls for doing "as much as possible to stop illegal immigration." Merkel's Austrian colleagues report that when she addressed the other 11 heads of government at the meeting, the chancellor complained that 50,000 refugees had come to Europe along the Balkan route since February. The border, it seems, has not been sealed well enough.

A rather European solution

The meeting failed to produce any new insights; only the tone of the leaders' statements seemed to become more unified as it went on. Whereas last year there were serious differences of opinion, this year all emphasized the importance of the 1,000 new EU border patrol agents that are to be deployed as part of the Frontex border management program. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern added that if external borders could not be protected, states would have to act on their own; that would also apply to Austria. This, he said, would have consequences for businesses, tourists and commuters.

Angela Merkel repeatedly emphasized common goals and the success of the EU-Turkey agreement. She sees the agreement as a blueprint for further treaties, especially with countries like Egypt, which has now become the hub for the latest wave of migration to Europe. Pakistan and Afghanistan are also on her list, although talks between the two countries are barely happening. The goal, said the chancellor once again, was to deport all immigrants that will not be allowed to remain in Europe for humanitarian reasons as soon as possible. But the EU is a long way from being able to do that.

Fence on Bulgarian border
Borders have been closed - like here on Bulgaria's frontier to TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Donev

Criticism of Greece

Greece can't do it! Once again, Alexis Tsipras had to listen to a lot of criticism - also from Angela Merkel. Currently, some 60,000 refugees are stuck in Greece, mostly because they cannot be returned to Turkey, the chancellor emphasized. Athens needs more help from the EU. The extremely slow asylum process is in fact compounding the refugee bottleneck on the Greek isles. "Can it remain the case that Greece does not send people back?" asked the Austrian chancellor rhetorically.

The Greek prime minister, on the other hand, pointed the finger at the broken promises of the EU member states: 5,000 refugees stand ready to be distributed among other EU states; to date only about 500 have been taken in. Angela Merkel stressed the fact that Germany was prepared to admit several hundred people per month from Italy and Greece. But other EU states must also do their part, she said. Yet there has been very little movement in some countries, Merkel quietly criticized, and none whatsoever in Hungary.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees are also stuck in Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria. These countries are none too happy with what the EU has offered them in assistance, either. Several heads of government, especially Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, are calling for more EU support.

Refugees in silhouette
Thousands of refugees came along the Balkan route for monthsImage: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

Hardline EU policy

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has been increasingly uncompromising in formulating his position: "The Western Balkan route must remain closed for good." Right now, the most important thing for the EU is to protect its exterior borders, said Tusk in Vienna. No more talk of admission and distribution.

As has become usual, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the Vienna conference as an opportunity to flaunt his anti-refugee rhetoric: He wants to build an enormous refugee camp off the coast of Libya and send all refugees that land in Europe there. He says that total control of the EU's exterior borders must be attained, and that includes controlling the Mediterranean. He continued that anyone fished out of the waters there should simply be dropped off in the new Libyan camp. Orban has firmly established himself in the role of the EU's constant provocateur. Part of that role includes the referendum against the admission of refugees to be held in early October, for which he is busily inciting his country.