EU, Balkan leaders hold summit amid border threats

Draft statement of EU-Balkan summit proposes deployment of more ships off Greece, more guards on EU-Balkan borders, new checkpoints, and faster repatriations of economic migrants.

Refugees walk to the Austrian side of the border crossing Slovenia
Refugees walk to the Austrian side of the border crossing Slovenia

European Union and Balkan leaders faced a make-or-break summit on Sunday to discuss the refugee crisis after Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia threatened to close their borders if other EU countries stopped accepting asylum-seekers.

Reuters reported that the meeting was held after fears that Germany and Austria would close their own borders as thousands of people remained stranded in dire conditions and plummeting temperatures.

According to a draft statement seen by Reuters that must still be agreed, the leaders may deploy more ships off Greece, agree to send 400 border guards to the borders between EU countries and Western Balkans, and set up new checkpoints if the EU’s frontier states drop their policy of giving arrivals passage to other countries.

“We commit to immediately increase our efforts to manage our borders,” the draft said, which, if formalized, would be a 16-point plan and the latest step in drawing up a common approach to dealing with the thousands of people streaming into the EU every day from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan.

In the draft statement, the leaders seek to speed up repatriations of people from South Asia, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose asylum requests are rejected because they are simply seeking a better life and not fleeing war or oppression.

“The challenge now is to slow down the flow of migration and to bring our external borders under control,” Juncker told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag. “We must also make it clear that people who arrive at our borders who are not looking for international protection have no right to enter the EU.

The mini summit saw European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, call the leaders of EU states Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, and non-EU leaders Serbia and Macedonia to attend the meeting in Bruseels.

Some have argued however, that all states should be there for the meeting as this could limit progress on a plan.

The meeting was sought amid a clear split in the EU over how to best handle the crisis, and many see it as an attempt by Juncker and Merkel to raise pressure on central and southeast European states to shoulder the influx of asylum-seekers and end a series of unilateral actions, Reuters reported.

Hungary’s decision to build a razor-wire fence and last week’s decision to close its border with Serbia and Croatia has prompted others to follow, stranding tens of thousands in dire conditions as temperatures drop.

The decision saw refugees re-route through Slovenia, which, over the past nine days, saw the arrival of more than 62,000 refugees. The Slovenian government has accused Croatia of deliberately dumping thousands of refugees on the border. Croatia says it has no choice because Slovenia is allowing far less into the country than it should be.

Fears of Germany and Austria closing their own borders have led Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia to threaten to do so, warning they would not let the Balkan region become a “buffer zone” for stranded migrants.

“If Germany and Austria and other countries close their borders ... we will be ready to also close our borders at that very same moment,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said on Saturday.

More than 680,000 asylum-seekers and refugees have crossed to Europe by sea so far this year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to the International Organization for Migration. Meanwhile, despite initial estimates that Germany will receive 800,000 asylum applications in 2015, the country’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the country will take in close to 1.5 refugees.