Austria will maintain its veto on the extension of the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone to Bulgaria and Romania until Vienna sees a “sustained decline” in asylum seekers, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said in an interview.
Asylum applications in Austria (not including Ukrainians) nearly tripled last year to about 110,000 — the highest per-capita rate in the EU — prompting the government to block the Schengen area’s expansion in December.
“What’s important to us, to be perfectly frank, is that the numbers go down and there has to be a sustained decline,” Schallenberg said, calling the veto a “warning signal“ to Brussels. “One must understand that when we’re seeing over 100,000 asylum applications every 12 months, it is difficult for us as Austria to just let this dysfunctional system roll along.”
Schallenberg declined to define a timeframe for when Vienna might lift its veto on Schengen’s expansion, but with refugee arrivals continuing to rise — the EU’s asylum agency recorded a nearly 60 percent year-on-year increase in January — a resolution to the impasse over Schengen looks to be out of reach in the short term.
Schallenberg said his government was encouraged by the EU’s “action plan” to tighten border controls and accelerate asylum procedures but needed to see much more progress.
“As a country at the heart of Europe, Austria is a great beneficiary of Schengen and we want it to work,” he said.
The main reason Austria has so many refugees is that other EU countries along the so-called Balkan route — in particular Hungary — refuse to register most asylum seekers, a step that under EU rules would allow Vienna to send them back to that country once they arrived in Austria. Under the so-called Dublin rule, the country where a refugee enters the EU and is registered is responsible for handling the individual’s case.
The EU took in about 1 million refugees last year, excluding Ukrainians, a nearly 50 percent increase. If France and Germany registered as many as Austria per capita, both countries alone would have had 1 million, Schallenberg argued.
Bulgaria and Romania have been seeking accession to Schengen for years and reacted with anger to the Austrian move. The Netherlands joined Austria in vetoing Bulgaria but gave a green light to Romania.
Critics say Vienna’s move unnecessarily erodes EU unity at a time when members should take pains to show more unity.
Many in Austria’s business community, which is heavily invested in both Romania and Bulgaria, have also been alarmed by the government’s move.
Yet Austria’s governing coalition, which is led by Schallenberg’s People’s Party, has another worry: the country’s far-right Freedom Party has taken a commanding lead in the national polls with just over a year to go until the next regular election.
One reason for the surge is that the party’s signature issue — migration — has returned to the center of the political debate.
Beginning with the refugee influx in 2015, a number of EU countries, Austria, Germany and France among them, began to suspend Schengen at some border crossings. Schallenberg stressed that his government’s ultimate goal with its hard line on Schengen expansion was to return to the pre-2015 system of truly borderless travel.
“We want a system where we don’t have to maintain border checks,” he said. “No one benefits and we’re not doing them because we enjoy it, but because we have no other choice.”