June 21, 2018 / 1:47 PM / 5 months ago

Anti-immigrant eastern EU states defiant as they boycott summit

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The anti-immigrant leaders of four central European states said on Thursday they would boycott an EU mini-summit on migration, taking a veiled swipe at Germany’s Angela Merkel by accusing countries of pushing the issue for domestic political reasons.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban gestures during a statement after a CSU party meeting at 'Kloster Seeon' in Seeon, Germany, January 5, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban hosted a meeting of the “Visegrad 4” former Communist countries, with the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

They confirmed they would not attend the migration mini-summit on Sunday at which Merkel is seeking backing for measures she hopes will satisfy coalition partners who have demanded the EU do more to share the burden of hosting asylum seekers.

They were joined by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose government includes the far right and shares some of its central European neighbors’ positions on immigration although he has not joined their boycott of the summit on Sunday.

The four eastern EU states strongly oppose calls from western counterparts for all member states to accept quotas of asylum seekers.

The issue has come to a head this week because coalition partners in Merkel’s German government have vowed to take new steps to keep out asylum seekers unless the bloc does more to share the burden.

Ten EU countries are attending the mini-summit on Sunday, including Italy and Greece, where most migrants first arrive, and richer countries further north where many have sought to stay.

“We understand there are domestic political difficulties in some countries but that cannot lead to pan-European haste,” Orban said. “We understand that there will...be a mini-summit on Sunday but we would like to state clearly that the prime ministers of V4 agreed that they will not go to that.”

The Hungarian leader said Europe should focus on issues related to migration where an agreement could be reached, such as the defense of borders and the creation of migrant camps outside the EU. “Where there is no agreement, there is no point in forcing those issues,” Orban said.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the four states speak “with one voice” on the migrant issue. “We looked at the documents that the European Commission sent us about the Sunday mini summit. We have concluded that they are warmed-up, past proposals which we neither understand nor accept.”

“MIGRANT-LOVING GROUP OF FRIENDS”

“There is a full European Council meeting four days later. So let’s just say we don’t belong to this migrant-loving group of friends, and neither do we want to partake.”

The number of migrants reaching the EU has in fact dropped sharply since the height of the crisis in 2015, when more than a million arrived from the Middle East and Africa, mostly from Turkey by sea to Greece and then overland across the Balkans.

That route was largely shut by a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey. The other main route, the frequently deadly crossing from North Africa to Italy, remains open but numbers have declined substantially in the past year as Libyan armed factions have cut down on people smuggling.

Still the issue remains sharply divisive across Europe. Particularly in Poland and Hungary, hostility to immigration has become one of the defining issues for nationalist governments, even though those countries have been asked to host only a few thousand asylum seekers between them.

With little chance of an EU agreement to share out refugees, Sunday’s summit will focus on efforts to reduce “secondary movements” of asylum seekers, who legally are not permitted to leave the country where they first apply while their cases are pending, but in practice are able to travel easily throughout the EU’s border-free Schengen zone.

Italy and Greece want more help coping with the large numbers that have arrived on their shores. The EU also hopes to do more to reduce immigration by aiding countries that migrants have fled, and is expected to discuss off-shore camps where migrants can have cases heard before they reach the continent.

Kurz said whatever happens Europe should preserve its unity.

“We would like to strive for a unified Europe where we all grow and develop in the same direction,” he said. “We cannot afford the establishment of a multi-class Europe.”

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Peter Graff

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