Opinion: Close the borders and hope for the best | Opinion | DW | 24.02.2016
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Opinion: Close the borders and hope for the best

The Balkan States and Austria are sealing themselves off. Greece is shut out. In Europe it's every country for itself. The fight exposes the EU's helplessness in the refugee crisis, says Bernd Riegert.

The Balkan refugee conference in Vienna, which was held without representatives from the beginning and the end of the refugee route, namely Greece and Germany, made one thing clear: The EU has failed in the refugee crisis, with each member state thinking only of its own interests and attempting to scare away migrants and refugees.

The "European solution" that German Chancellor Angela Merkel fantasized about at the most recent EU Summit does not exist. And it will not exist when she meets with Turkish representatives at the next EU Summit on March 7 either. It would take a miracle for Turkey to open its border with Greece and take in refugees itself.

The end of commonalities

Austria and the countries along the Balkan route are no longer waiting for policy change in Berlin, they are acting. The border between Macedonia and Greece is only open for those refugees who are obviously arriving from war-torn Syria and Iraq. All others will be turned away. The Balkan States see themselves merely as transit countries for Syrian refugees. Interior ministers made that clear in Vienna. Austria is handing all of those refugees over to Germany - with the exception of the 80 that are allowed to apply for asylum in Austria each day. The logic is that Austria can force Germany to define its upper limit so that they know how many refugees to let through their own border with the Balkans. The German government is miffed at Austria pressing the issue, and has become stubborn, now it is biding its time and hoping. But hoping for what?

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert

DW's Bernd Riegert

There is no longer any need to hope for European solidarity over the distribution of refugees coming from Greece or Turkey. Numerous European meetings have made that crystal clear. Now European states are simply concerned with protecting their own borders. Greece, more than any other country, must bear the brunt of such policies. There is simply no way that the economically afflicted country, run by incompetent and unwilling left- and rightwing extremists, can deal with the burden of the thousands of migrants and refugees that will continue to arrive at its borders. The Austro-Balkan coalition and the rest of the EU run the risk of pushing Greece into total collapse and creating a disastrous situation for migrants and refugees.

Scare them away instead of passing them on

The calculus behind the decision was clearly stated by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner weeks ago. Greece cannot and will not hold migrants and refugees. Therefore, Greece must now be shut out of the EU border regime. The new de facto EU border runs between Greece and Macedonia and between Greece and Bulgaria. Mikl-Leitner said that one needs images of desperate refugees and migrants stranded on Greece's beaches in order to deter people from coming to Europe. She says that after a few weeks North Africans, Afghans, and perhaps even Syrians and Iraqis will stop coming because they will know that they have no chance of arriving in the north of Europe.

It is a simple, and at the same time, a very cynical strategy. Now it has been put into action in Vienna. In response, Greece is threatening to use its veto to block EU accession for the Balkan countries of Serbia and Montenegro. That does nothing to improve the political mood in the region and will only serve to further isolate Athens. The situation is dramatic and muddled. The immediate victims are the refugees and migrants who are being forced to sleep on the streets of Athens and Idomeni. They are caught in a trap because they cannot go back to Turkey either. The theoretical possibility of return is out of the question because of Turkey's refusal to allow it.

People will come

So what will happen? When the Balkan route is closed people will simply look to find other routes. From Greece, across Albania, to Italy? From Libya and Egypt to Italy? From Turkey to Bulgaria? "Individual countries closing their own borders is not a solution." It was not just anyone that said that, it was the head of the EU border agency, Frontex. He also predicted that, despite new closings and along the Balkan route, more than a million refugees and migrants will come to Europe this year.

The ministers in Vienna have decided to drastically limit the flow of people coming to Europe at any cost - even if that means sacrificing Greece. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Europe would break apart otherwise. It is already breaking. Because when it comes to immigration policy it is now clearly: every man for himself.

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