Austria’s chancellor calls for anti-migration 'axis' with Germany and Italy

EU-wide row over immigration continues after Italy's populist government rejects rescue boat

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Thursday 14 June 2018 15:44 BST
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Charity boat rescues migrants off the coast of Italy

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for the formation of an anti-migration “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy, to push for more restrictive border policies at an EU level.

Mr Kurz, a right-wing conservative who is in coalition with his country’s far-right party, said he wanted to increase cooperation between Rome, Vienna and Berlin on the issue of illegal immigration.

The use of the term “axis” by Mr Kurz raised eyebrows across Europe, given its association with the Germany-Italy-Japan alliance during the Second World War, when Austria was part of Germany.

The provocative intervention comes after a tumultuous week on the European stage, with international rows triggered by Italy’s new populist right-wing government closing its ports to a rescue ship carrying over 600 refugees.

Spain’s new centre-left prime minister Pedro Sanchez said his country would allow the Aquarius in, whose passengers included children, pregnant women, and people needing medical attention. French president Emmanuel Macron also criticised Italy’s handling of the situation, telling his cabinet that the new Five Star-League coalition government had acted cynically and irresponsibly in its refusal to welcome the ship..

Mr Macron’s spokesperson sought to diffuse mounting tensions on Thursday, telling reporters: “The French president emphasised that he never said anything meant to offend Italy and the Italian people.”

The vessel is in the process of making the four-day journey to the Spanish port of Valencia, escorted by two Italian coastguard ships whose berths have also been used to relieve overcrowding on the rescue boat.

In our view, we need an 'axis of the willing' in the fight against illegal migration

Sebastian Kurz

Austrian chancellor Mr Kurz met with the German interior minister Horst Seehofer on Wednesday, afterwards telling reporters: “In our view, we need an ‘axis of the willing’ in the fight against illegal migration.

“I am happy about the good cooperation that we want to develop between Rome, Vienna and Berlin. I think it marks very sensible cooperation that will contribute to reducing illegal migration to Europe.”

Stranded migrants were transferred from the Aquarius to Italian ships (AP/SOS Mediterranee)

One of Angela Merkel’s most senior ministers, Mr Seehofer, hails from her CDU party’s independent Bavarian sister party, the CSU, which takes a more conservative stance on immigration.

Tensions between the two German conservative groups have been growing over the issue, with the CSU worried that the far-right AfD party will make further gains at its expense, but Ms Merkel committed to a liberal an EU-wide approach to the refugee crisis.

An immigration master-plan drawn up by Mr Seehofer was due to be published on Tuesday but was delayed, reportedly after opposition from Ms Merkel. A session of the Bundestag was interrupted on Thursday morning so that CDU and CSU MPs could hold separate meetings amongst themselves to discuss the policies.

Mr Seehofer wants border states like Bavaria to be allowed to refuse asylum-seekers trying to enter Germany if they have already registered in another EU state. But Ms Merkel says any policy on the issue must be coordinated at an EU level.

Mr Kurz has called Mr Seehofer a “strong partner” for Austria, and has at times appeared closer to him than his counterpart Ms Merkel.

The formation of an anti-immigration Axis between the core EU states would build on the work of the Visegrad group. The V4 countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have been resistant to migration, and led opposition to EU quotas to take pressure off southern European countries.

Earlier this week the European Commission pledged to triple funding for border control during its next multiannual budget period. The proposal is still subject to negotiation by member states, who will agree the final budget.

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