February 8, 2017 / 4:09 PM / 6 months ago

SE, central Europe states eye closer border cooperation to deter migrants

Hungary's State Secretary of the Ministry of Interior Karoly Kontrat, Austria's Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, Austria's Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil and Czech Republic's Deputy Defence Minister Jakub Landovsky (L-R) address a news conference in Vienna, Austria February 8, 2017.Heinz-Peter Bader

VIENNA (Reuters) - More than a dozen countries in central and southeastern Europe agreed on Wednesday to draw up plans by late April for closer military and civilian cooperation to protect their borders in case a migrant deal the EU has struck with Turkey collapses.

The deal, clinched nearly a year ago, has sharply cut the number of migrants entering the European Union from Turkey via Greece and the Balkans, but Ankara has repeatedly threatened to halt cooperation as its relations with the EU have worsened.

Interior and defence ministry officials from 16 countries stretching from Greece to Poland signed a joint declaration committing them to instruct their police, civilian and military authorities to work together on a crisis response plan.

"We here have the perfect tool to prepare something that is really needed and that thing is a Plan B for the situation when the EU-Turkey deal fails and for that we should be prepared," said Czech Deputy Defence Minister Jakub Landovsky.

Europe's migrant crisis, which saw an influx of more than one million people, many of them fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, during 2015, has exposed deep divisions within the 28-nation EU.

Austria's Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka (L) and Austria's Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil listen during a news conference in Vienna, Austria February 8, 2017.Heinz-Peter Bader

Many of the countries participating in Wednesday's meeting in Vienna have rejected calls, led by the European Commission and Germany, for them to share the burden of resettling the migrants by accepting quotas.

Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil of Austria, which has taken the lead in organising a regional response to the migrant crisis, said it would have preferred a fully fledged EU response to the issue, but added: "We won't wait any longer."

Under the EU-Turkey deal, Ankara agreed to stop illegal migrants from crossing from its territory to Greece in exchange for financial aid for those in its care and the promise of visa-free travel to Europe for its own citizens. The EU also agreed to accelerate Turkey's long-stalled talks to join the bloc.

But there has been deadlock over the plan to grant Turks visa-free access to Europe, with Brussels first wanting Turkey to change its anti-terrorism laws, which it deems too broad.

Ties soured further following a failed military coup in Turkey. The EU has criticised the scale of Ankara's crackdown on people it deems to have supported the coup, while Turkey has said Europe's response to the putsch was too limp.

Wednesday's meeting in Vienna built on a similar gathering last year that led to the introduction of border controls across the region.

Reporting by Shadia Nasralla, additional reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones

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