BRUSSELS 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.
Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flocked to Europe, announced the unilateral move on the eve of a meeting it was due to host on implementing an EU-Turkey plan to stem the influx.
Senior EU officials fumed at the Austrians for failing to notify European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker of their plans, with one describing the cap as "shameless" and "for the benefit of the Austrian tabloids".
"That will be seen as a provocation to announce that, just before an EU summit," another senior EU official added.
Despite a warning from the EU's migration chief that the cap would break EU and international humanitarian law, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann vowed to press ahead with the plan.
"Politically I say we'll stick with it," he said before a full summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
"After 100,000 refugees we can't tell the Austrian people that it will just continue like this," he added on arrival at the summit, at which leaders were due to focus on the migration issue and efforts to seal a deal to help keep Britain in the EU.
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.
Thursday's planned pre-summit meeting that Austria had been due to host between Turkey and 11 EU states did no go ahead 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 in offering money and promising to revive Turkey's long-stalled EU accession talks to get Ankara to prevent more people from embarking from its shores for Europe.
But four sceptical eastern European members have floated a fallback policy of ringfencing 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. For one thing, closing borders would bottle up migrants in Greece, likely giving rise to major humanitarian problems in a country already struggling with its own deep financial crisis.
The four eastern states, which have also strongly opposed a German proposal for distributing refugees around the EU, have been backpedalling and increasingly seek to portray their proposal as another leg of EU strategy, not an alternative to seeking an effective deal with Turkey.
But 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.
Draft conclusions of the summit seen by Reuters say the leaders will conclude that "the flows of migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey remain much too high" and they want "a substantial and sustainable reduction of the number".
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."
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Tom Koerkemeier, Jan Strupczewski, Philip Blenkinsop, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alastair Macdonald, Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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Published Date: Feb 19, 2016 12:16 am | Updated Date: Feb 19, 2016 12:16 am