Austria infuriated European Union peers on Thursday by insisting on capping the number of migrants it takes in, undermining Germany’s push to seek a joint EU solution to the bloc’s refugee crisis in tandem with Turkey.
EU leaders reaffirmed at a Brussels summit there was no alternative to a common European approach to the migration wave that exposed deep differences in the EU. They also resolved to hold a special summit with Turkey in early March to make a joint plan to stem the influx work better.
In a clear show of exasperation at the Austrian move, announced unilaterally on the eve of the summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “National solos are not to be recommended.”
What had been expected to be a relatively calm discussion on implementing the bloc’s tentative strategy to curb the number of refugees entering Europe turned into what one diplomat called a blazing row with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.
Other EU officials said Vienna’s action was tantamount to “giving the finger to the rest of Europe”, and “for the benefit of Austrian tabloids”.
Faymann insisted he did not only hear criticism during the summit dinner: “There was a lot of understanding,” he said.
“We cannot provide all the asylum in Europe.”
Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flocked to Europe, announced on Wednesday it would reimpose barriers on its southern borders.
Despite a warning from the EU’s migration chief that the cap would break EU and international humanitarian law and pressure at the table to suspend the measure, Faymann vowed to press ahead with the plan and said his own lawyers had other views.
Austria’s dispute with its peers is symptomatic of the rifts the massive flow of migrants into Europe has opened within the EU, with member states often ignoring calls from the European Commission to share the burden more evenly, and unilaterally reimposing barriers to movement over their borders.
The leaders issued a statement saying: “The comprehensive strategy agreed in December will only bring results if all its elements are pursued jointly and if the institutions and the Member States act together and in full coordination.”
Austria had been due to host a pre-summit meeting between Turkey and 11 EU states on Thursday, but that was called off due to a bombing in Ankara – a setback to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes of pressing ahead with the EU-Turkey pact. EU leaders issued a statement condemning the Ankara attack.
Germany, which took in over one million migrants last year, has led efforts to offer money and promise to revive Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks to get Ankara to prevent more people from embarking from its shores for Europe.
“The important statement for me today is that we have not only reaffirmed the EU-Turkey action plan, but we have said it is our priority,” Merkel told reporters.
But many doubt it would work and have pushed towards beefing up border controls along the migration routes, which could eventually lead to tens of thousands of people being stuck in Greece, giving rise to major humanitarian problems in a country already struggling with its own deep financial crisis.
“Merkel is completely isolated on this, she is losing political capital. All the others get increasingly impatient every week. So it’s going to happen this way or another, even though it would mean leaving Greece in the cold,” said one diplomat.
The EU would then need to provide humanitarian assistance to Greece, a possibility already mentioned in the draft conclusions of the 28 leaders’ meetings.
An EU official also warned that countries would tighten borders further by the time leaders meet for their next summit in mid-March.
Four sceptical eastern European members have floated a fallback policy of ring fencing Greece to keep the migrants they expect to land there from proceeding through Macedonia and Bulgaria to other EU countries to the north and west.
The “Plan B” suggested by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not go down well in Brussels and Berlin.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, told a news conference: “We must first avoid a battle among plans A, B and C. It makes no sense at all, as it creates divisions within the European Union.”
The four eastern states, which strongly oppose a German proposal for distributing refugees around the EU, have sought to portray their proposal as another leg of EU strategy, rather than an alternative to seeking an effective deal with Turkey.
Merkel, on arriving at the summit, pledged to press ahead with the EU-Turkey pact despite the cancellation of the planned meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
“I would like the EU-Turkey immigration agenda to be granted priority so that we do everything to implement what has been agreed to protect our outer borders, and also to divide roles with regard to the many refugees coming from Syria,” she said.
One EU diplomat said the influx of migrants must be stemmed by a mid-March EU summit on migration. “Without stemming the flows, there is no hope. By March time will be running out … relying simply on Turkey to deliver is not enough.”