Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz calls for stronger EU border after German migration deal

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has warned that Germany's new migration deal could force the Alpine country to impose stronger border checks on Italy and Slovenia. The deal ended a bitter German government crisis.

Austria's conservative chancellor on Tuesday said that Germany's debate over how to tackle irregular migration underlined the importance of strengthening the European Union's external border.

"Securing the external border is the basis for securing internal mobility [in the EU]," Sebastian Kurz said in a speech to the European Parliament. Austria, he added, would work towards that goal as part of its six-month EU presidency, which began on Sunday.

Read more: Austria holds border exercises in response to Germany

Earlier, Kurz said that a migration deal that ended a bitter dispute between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, would force Austria to "protect" its southern border.

"Should this agreement become the German government's position, we see that as prompting us to take action to prevent negative consequences for Austria and its population," he said in a joint statement with his far-right vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, and interior minister, Herbert Kickl.

'ProBorders': Austria stages border protection exercises

Austria's answer to migration

During the 2015 migration crisis, Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers. Since then, a right-wing government has come to power, vowing to never allow a repeat of such irregular migration. Vienna's "ProBorders" military and police exercises at the border aimed to increase authorities' preparedness for a similar wave of migration.

'ProBorders': Austria stages border protection exercises

'Provocative' action

For the exercises, Austrian authorities deployed armored vehicles and two Black Hawk combat helicopters, although the training did not include violence on the part of migrants or arrests. Despite the show of force at the Austrian-Slovenian border, Slovenia's prime minister said the exercises weren't needed, and even called them "a little provocative."

'ProBorders': Austria stages border protection exercises

From elite troops to cadets

Hundreds of soldiers and police officers were involved in the exercises, including Austria's new elite border protection force called the "Puma" police unit. Police cadets played the part of the migrants attempting to cross the border. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the Austrian government "will do everything necessary to protect our borders."

'ProBorders': Austria stages border protection exercises

Sending a message

Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl and Defense Minister Mario Kunasek, both of the far-right Freedom Party, attended the exercises. "A state that in the worst case cannot protect its borders loses its credibility," Kickl told reporters. "I am determined that events like those of 2015 must not occur again. And that is exactly the message we want to send from here."

'ProBorders': Austria stages border protection exercises

Hard borders on the horizon?

The exercises came days after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened to take drastic measures if Chancellor Angela Merkel didn't find a EU-wide solution to irregular migration. Seehofer has proposed intercepting asylum seekers at the German border, a move that would likely prompt major restrictions on freedom of movement in the visa-free Schengen zone.

"The [Austrian] government is therefore prepared in particular to take measures for the protection of our southern border," Kurz said without elaborating. Austria shares its southern border with Italy and Slovenia.

Read more: Austria brings hard-line refugee policy to EU

Merkel-Seehofer deal

Thousands of migrants seeking to enter Germany have passed through Austria in recent years, and many entered Austria through Slovenia and Italy.

On Monday, Merkel agreed to her interior minister's demand to set up transit centers on the Austrian border to ensure that asylum seekers already registered elsewhere in the EU are swiftly deported to that country.

The agreement solved a government crisis that saw Seehofer, who leads Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), threaten to resign if Merkel, who heads the sister-party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), did not accept his proposals to secure Germany's border.

Read more: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz: The EU's new power broker?

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DW News | 26.06.2018

Austria tests border defense on Slovenian border

'Legally compliant'

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appeared optimistic about the German deal, which he described as being an "agreement of two parties" rather than one at a federal government level. "I have not studied it in detail but at first glance — and I have asked the legal services to look at it — it seems to me to be legally compliant," he told reporters in Strasbourg.

Austrian fears

But the deal could cause tensions with Austria, which fears that migrants could be held up on its territory if the German plan, which still requires approval from the CDU/CSU's coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), goes ahead.

Analysts have warned that other EU countries may mimic Austria's reaction by beefing up their borders to ensure migrants are stopped before entering their territory. The resulting domino effect would raise questions about the future of the EU's border-control-free Schengen zone and could harm cross-border trade.

Seehofer, for his part, said that he had called Kurz on Tuesday morning, and would like to travel to Vienna "as soon as possible" to discuss a "sensible solution" with Austria's chancellor.

amp/msh (AFP, dpa, AP)

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