September 23, 2016 / 10:37 AM / 2 years ago

Austria expresses modest goals for migration summit

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern hopes a weekend summit he is hosting will spur the European Union to address its migration crisis more quickly, but he expressed only modest concrete goals for the meeting in an interview published on Friday.

An overcrowded dinghy with migrants from different African countries is escorted by members of the German NGO Jugend Rettet as they approach the Iuventa vessel during a rescue operation, off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

The Saturday meeting of 10 national leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will focus on migration along the Balkan route, a path into Europe that Austria and others largely shut down this year, leaving thousands stuck in Greece and infuriating Athens.

While overall arrival numbers in the EU have fallen, partly due to a deal between the EU and Turkey under which Ankara prevents migrants from embarking for Europe from its shores, the future of that deal is uncertain. The bloc has been split over measures aimed at providing a more lasting solution.

“The meeting is an attempt to accelerate the decision-making process in the EU,” Kern said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

“We need to jointly define where we must put in place rigid border security - not only in Greece,” he said without elaborating. Leaders should also discuss the situation outside Europe and help countries with large numbers of refugees, like Lebanon, he added.

EU leaders vowed at a summit a week ago to strengthen protection of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and intensify cooperation between their security services.

But Austria, which last year took in 90,000 asylum-seekers, more than 1 percent of its population, says it could not cope with another such wave of arrivals, and wants far more wide-ranging action to ensure that does not happen.

There has been tension between Germany’s Merkel and ex-communist eastern states which have refused to take in asylum-seekers, many of them Muslims.

But Merkel, who let in a million people last year, has said she now accepts their arguments for “flexible solidarity”, by which they could help in the migrant crisis in ways other than by taking in refugees.

The migration crisis has buoyed anti-immigration parties across Europe, including in Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party is running first in opinion polls and its candidate has a good chance of winning a presidential election this year.

Kern’s comments did not suggest any breakthrough was likely at Saturday’s meeting, which will also be attended by European Council President Donald Tusk.

“My goal would be to have a more detailed report of what is happening at specific border segments and what form of support exactly is needed there,” he said, mentioning Greece as an example. “In a second step we must talk about how we can help countries that are particularly affected.”

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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