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Austria sticks to migration cap despite EU legal warning

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Austria said on Thursday it would go ahead with introducing daily caps on migrants despite warnings from Brussels that the move broke European Union rules, which have already been badly stretched by the migration crisis engulfing the bloc.

EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos addresses the European Parliament during a debate on refugee emergency, external borders control and the future of Schengen in Strasbourg, France, February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Vienna announced it would let in no more than 3,200 people and cap asylum claims at 80 per day from Friday as it tries to cut immigration, drawing criticism from the European Union’s migration chief.

“Politically I say we’ll stick with it ... it is unthinkable for Austria to take on the asylum seekers for the whole of Europe,” Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann said on arriving at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

Around 700,000 migrants entered Austria last year and about 90,000 applied for asylum in the country sitting on the migrant route from Turkey via Greece and the Balkans to Germany.

“After 100,000 refugees, we can’t tell the Austrian people that it will just continue like this. That’s why I tell the EU: we set a good example but to think that you don’t have to do anything, then I have to say it is time for the EU to act,” Faymann said.

Austria is the latest EU state to resort to its own measures to curb migration and try control the flows as the 28-nation bloc has all but failed to implement a joint response to its worst migration crisis in decades.

“It is true that Austria is under huge pressure,” European Union Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told Reuters earlier on Thursday. “It is true they are overwhelmed. But, on the other hand, there are some principles and laws that all countries must respect and apply.”

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Avramopoulos sent a letter to Austria’s Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner on Thursday, urging Vienna to reconsider the move as it was against EU laws.

“The Austrians are obliged to accept asylum applications without putting a cap,” Avramopoulos said.

But Faymann blamed the failure of the European migration and refugee policies, saying the bloc’s relocation plan to ease the burden on most-affected countries was not working and criticizing central-eastern EU members who have stalled it.

The migration crisis, which saw more than a million people reach Europe last year, opened deep rifts between EU states, which are trading blame and increasingly resorting to ad-hoc national solutions despite Brussels calls to prevent them.

Faymann backed Merkel in pushing for more cooperation with Turkey to get Ankara to curb the number of migrants and refugees who embark from its shores toward Europe.

Germany and Austria are among 11 EU states that were due to meet Turkey separately before the summit of all 28 EU leaders to discuss taking in more people directly from Turkey to discourage perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.

“Every agreement between Turkey and Greece to protect the common border and make legal immigration possible, every advance and may it be ever so mediocre, would be necessary and right,” Faymann said, adding he would seek a new meeting with Turkey after the Thursday one was canceled over a bombing in Ankara.

Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by Andrew Heavens