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04 Sep 2015 00:00
Syrians and Afghanis face riot police officers during a protest rally to demand passage to Germany. (Ferenc Isza, AFP)
Europe’s fragmented attempts to get to grips with its worst-ever refugee crisis are disintegrating into a slanging match between national capitals ahead of what is shaping up to be a major clash between Eastern and Western Europe over a common response.
Berlin has won plaudits for seizing the moral high ground and opening its doors unconditionally to Syrian refugees, but Austria and Hungary attacked it on Tuesday for stoking chaos at their railway stations, on their roads and at their borders as thousands of people seek transit to Germany.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, stepped up her campaign to put pressure on reluctant European Union partners into relieving the load on Germany and taking part in a more equitable system of sharing refugees across the EU.
“We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” she said. With Germany expecting to process 800 000 asylum applications this year – more than four times the figure for 2014 and more than the rest of the EU combined – Merkel insisted that there has to be a fairer distribution and that criteria must be discussed.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, stood alongside Merkel in Berlin as she spoke, but he rejected the German pressure for a new system of binding quotas for refugees spread across the EU.
“Some countries don’t want refugees,” he said.
“It’s not the time to be pointing fingers at each other,” said Natasha Bertaud, the European Commission’s spokesperson on immigration.
Merkel’s comments came as Hungarian authorities closed Budapest’s main station to refugees and migrants following chaotic scenes on Monday, when people who had been camped outside for weeks were suddenly allowed to leave for Austria and Germany without visa checks.
The move followed the station’s complete closure earlier, when all trains to the West had been stopped from leaving. Police in helmets and wielding batons surrounded Keleti station’s grand, crumbling facade and dozens of refugees and migrants who were inside were forced out.
As night fell, more than 300 migrants were still being barred from the station by police, and rights group the Hungarian Helsinki Committee warned that the situation was “very tense and unpredictable”.
The blocked refugee chanted: “Germany! Germany! We want to leave!” in protest, and some held their babies in the air as a sign of their distress.
Hungarian railway authorities said they would allow “only those in possession of the appropriate travel documents and – if necessary – a visa” to board trains to Western Europe.
The difficulties of forging a consensus were apparent, however, from the increasingly vicious blame game played by EU governments. Berlin and Brussels are pushing strongly for a more equitable and co-ordinated system to replace the current patchwork of incoherent and inconsistent national systems.
There is no pan-European policy and most powers over immigration rest with national governments, but Hungary and the Czech Republic have blamed the crisis squarely on Europe and reject common policy proposals from Brussels.
Both countries are talking about deploying their armed forces on their borders to keep out people fleeing war and persecution, many of them bona fide refugees.
János Lázár, an aide to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said: “It is the policies of the past 10 years which have led to this situation: the leftist approach of the European Commission, according to which anybody should be allowed into the territory of the European Union. The EU has failed to manage the situation and the problem is the EU itself, which is incapable of protecting its own borders.”
The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, made similar comments and the Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, echoed the Kremlin’s criticism of Western Europe by blaming it for the civil wars in Syria and Libya and the ensuing refugee crisis.
Central European countries are seeking to minimise the number of newcomers they host. The prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are to meet on Friday to seek a common position of defiance towards the pressure from Berlin and Brussels, especially on the question of obligatory quotas.
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