Austrian leaders took some risks – and a lot of criticism – to start the diplomatic conversation
As I write this Brussels is still smoldering from terrorist bombs that have killed at least 30 people and wounded 350 at Zevetem Airport and the Maelbeek subway station near the EU headquarters. It seemed ironic amidst the relief at the arrest of Salam Abdeslam, a lead suspect in last year’s Paris attacks. Along with the sympathy, French security services fumed at the difficulty of co-ordinating with Belgium’s cumbersome confederate structure.
At the other end of Europe, the borders along the “Balkan route” have been closed one by one, following an Austria-led, Balkan conference on the refugee crisis February 26 in Vienna, leaving some 12,000 migrants trapped in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, and another 50,000 across Greece. The Greeks were outraged by the border decision, taken at a conference to which they had not been invited. Amid charges of “unilateral and unfriendly” practice, their ambassador packed his bags and went home.
Austrian leaders were unrepentant. “The flow of migrants along the Balkan route must be massively reduced,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, and called for a “chain reaction of reason.” Frustrated by criticism from Berlin, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz set up a series of interviews in the German media. “Those who campaigned for open borders [have] certainly not solved the refugee crisis, but definitely intensified it,” he complained on the German TV channel ARD. He didn’t mention German Chancellor Angela Merkel by name, but he didn’t have to. Austria had already accepted 100,000 asylum applications in 2015, “twice as many per capita as Germany,” he told Berlin’s Bild Zeitung. “This won’t happen a second time.”
Then on March 13, the eve of the EU Summit, Chancellor Werner Faymann, in an unprecedented and heavily criticized move, went solo on Austria’s leading television political interview program Im Zentrum to defend the initiatives. The “ugly photographs” from Idomeni underscored the need for “a shared European solution,” he told host Ingrid Thurnher. It was important to stop the “asylum shopping,” and to stop the traffickers. It was up to the EU to show that “humane treatment and order can be combined.” If that happened, he was “proud to have helped.”
By Friday, March 18, just five days later, the EU, with German Chancellor Merkel back at the helm, reached the now historic agreement with Turkey on a plan to halt the flow of illegal immigrants, to deport the unauthorized and to greatly improve processing centers. Coming after eight months of passivity and discord, it was a strong, unified decision on a shared crisis. It’s far from ideal, negotiated at a high price, with a country assaulting independent media and downgrading the status of women. There are many complaints, most of them justified.
But the truth is, governing is hard. The cooperation that has made the EU-Turkish treaty possible will aid in the joint response to terrorism threats, and could help revive the sense of solidarity essential to the future of the European Union.
It’s not perfect, but it is important. And yes, Chancellor Faymann, Austria has helped.