Austria's Kurz warns against EU asylum-seeker distribution

Vienna (AFP) –


Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned Tuesday against any attempt to force EU countries to take in asylum-seekers as the European Commission prepared to unveil a new strategy for handling migration to the bloc.

Speaking to AFP in an exclusive interview, Kurz alluded to previous efforts by the European Commission to introduce mandatory quotas for refugees for all EU members, which were rejected by many eastern and central European countries.

"We find that the distribution in Europe (of asylum seekers) has failed and many states reject this. It won't work like this," the 34-year-old conservative leader said.

On Wednesday, Brussels will launch its latest proposal for EU asylum policy.

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson wants the 27 member states to share the burden of handling asylum claims from migrants who arrive mostly on the bloc's southern shores in Greece, Italy and Spain.

She has again raised the idea of mandatory sharing, though this might not mean resettling refugees around the bloc, but rather forcing all states to contribute to the system -- by helping with efforts to return failed asylum seekers, for example.

European migration policy was again in the headlines earlier this month following a devastating fire at an overcrowded camp for migrants and asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos which left thousands homeless.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said last week that the new proposals would include plans to strengthen border security and return failed asylum seekers, which Kurz and allies are in favour of, while also including "a new strong solidarity mechanism."

- Seeking alliances -

Kurz said he welcomed that the European Commission was addressing the topic of asylum and migration.

"We can only solve this topic all together... Better protection of the (EU's) outer borders, a joined fight against smugglers, but also joined aid where it is needed (in countries where refugees come from), that is the path that is needed," he said.

Austria and other smaller countries -- some of them, such as Hungary, criticised by Brussels over their anti-immigration stance and on rule-of-law issues -- have spoken out in the past against any mandatory asylum-seeker distribution.

Kurz, pushing to make his mark in European politics, has also sought allies on other topics, such as when he worked with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark -- as the so-called "Frugal Four" -- to oppose direct EU aid to coronavirus-hit countries as proposed by Germany and France.

"The European Union is more than just Germany and France... As a small or medium-sized state of course one has to always look for alliances, and in an EU with 27 member states one can only assert ideas if there are others that support them," he told AFP in an office in the chancellery.

- Coronavirus 'challenge' -

Kurz became the world's youngest chancellor when his conservative People's Party (OeVP) formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in 2017.

The coalition fell apart in 2019 after a corruption scandal engulfed the far-right FPOe leader, leading to fresh elections in which Kurz's party again gathered the most votes.

Kurz then formed a new coalition with the Greens and has governed the Alpine country of nearly nine million people since January.

Kurz said fighting the coronavirus pandemic was "a very big challenge".

"I am still relatively young, but I have been part of the Austrian government for many years and I thought I had already been through a lot politically... The corona crisis now exceeds all previous experiences of course," he said.

The country has so far been spared the brunt of the crisis, reporting almost 40,000 cases with 771 deaths to date, but infections have surged again in recent weeks.

This has led to the government to extend mandatory mask wearing and re-instate some of the other restrictions imposed earlier this year to stem the spread of the virus.