February 24, 2016 / 12:58 PM / 3 years ago

Austria unrepentant at Balkan meeting on border restrictions

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria brushed aside criticism from EU peers including Greece as it hosted a meeting with Balkan states on the main migrant route into Europe, saying it needed to coordinate national border restrictions in the absence of European measures.

Austrian Interior Minster Johanna Mikl-Leitner (L) and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz address the media prior to the conference "Managing Migration Together" in Vienna, Austria, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Greece filed a rare diplomatic protest with Austria for excluding officials from Athens from Wednesday’s meeting of foreign and interior ministers in Vienna, held a day before a European Union-wide interior ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flocked to Europe in the last year, has set off what it calls a “domino effect” of national restrictions limiting the flow of people towards it.

Those measures, from Austria’s frontier with Slovenia to Macedonia’s border with Greece, have left hundreds stranded in Greece.

On Wednesday, migrants cradling young children blocked a motorway in central Greece demanding onward passage to Macedonia, part of a growing bottleneck.

Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said on Wednesday that a decision by Balkan states to limit the flow of migrants through the region was creating a “mini humanitarian crisis” in Greece.

But Austria was unrepentant, despite criticism from Germany which is pushing for a much-delayed European response to the crisis, including the processing of migrants as they reach Greece and an agreement with Turkey to slow the flow of people.

“There is still no European solution in sight,” Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters before the meeting in Vienna. “For that reason it is necessary for us to take national measures.”

Austria says it is overwhelmed by the number of arrivals. It has mainly served as a conduit into Germany for migrants but has taken in a similar number of asylum seekers relative to its population.

Public fears about the influx have contributed to a rise in support for the far-right opposition, and the coalition government has taken an increasingly hard line on immigration despite initially throwing open the country’s borders.

Austria said last week that it would limit the number of asylum claims at its southern border, on the main migrant route, to 3,200 and introduce a daily cap on asylum claims there of 80, prompting criticism from the European Commission.

Kurz said Athens had failed to stop migrants from traveling on towards Austria and Germany and a lack of political will within the European Union had prevented the introduction of common measures to address the migration crisis.

“There is no readiness on the Greek side to reduce the flow,” Kurz said, describing a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers. “The interest on the Greek side is only in transporting refugees as quickly as possible towards central Europe.”

The aim of Wednesday’s meeting was therefore to coordinate national measures with Balkan countries on and near the main migrant trail, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Slovenia, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said.

“We all believe in a European solution. We are also all working towards a European solution,” she told reporters. “There is just one question: when will this European solution come?”

editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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