VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria plans to use its presidency of the European Union this year to shift the bloc’s focus away from resettling refugees within the EU and towards preventing further waves of arrivals, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Friday.
Kurz is governing in coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, making Austria the only western European country to have a far-right party in government. This follows an election last year dominated by Europe’s migration crisis.
Austria will take over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union in July, giving it an important say in setting the agenda at the many meetings between member states.
The bloc has been bitterly divided over immigration and eastern member states like Poland and Hungary refuse to take in their share of refugees under a resettlement system. Kurz, an immigration hard-liner, has pledged to use his good relations particularly with Hungary to bring the two sides closer.
“Our aim is very clear - that in Europe there should not only be a dispute over redistribution (of refugees) but also at last a shift of focus towards securing external borders,” Kurz told a news conference outlining Austria’s priorities for the presidency, which it will take over from Bulgaria.
Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have repeatedly rebuffed requests from Brussels and western EU states to host some of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees that have streamed into the EU since 2015.
The bitter row has undermined trust between the bloc’s members and weakened their unity.
Austria has moved from calling on the eastern Europeans to carry their share of the burden to, under Kurz, criticizing the debate on quotas and calling for a new system altogether.
Kurz has said there is no point arguing over the current system of quotas because eastern states refuse to accept them. He has argued in favor of a system in which migrants rescued in the Mediterranean are returned to Africa rather than brought to Europe, and pledged to stop illegal immigration altogether.
“Protection (of borders) alone will not solve the migration question but the decisive question is what happens to people after their rescue - so are they brought to central Europe or are they taken back to countries or origin or other safe regions where they can be provided for?” he said.
When asked what solutions he had in mind, he said expanding the mandate of Frontex, the EU border agency, was one option but there were others and it would depend on talks with leaders at events including a summit on migration and security on Sept. 20.
Other priorities Austria has set itself include promoting Europe’s competitiveness and working towards EU accession for Balkan countries, particularly Serbia and Montenegro, he said.
Kurz added that he also hoped the bloc would make progress on ensuring internet companies like Facebook and Google pay more tax on profits in the countries where those profits are made, he said.
Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg