Dispute over Germany's approach to migration draws in Austria's young leader

Sebastian Kurz walked a tightrope in Berlin, appearing to side with both Angela Merkel and her opponents

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz attend a news conference in Berlin, Germany, June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Joachim Herrmann

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday called for an “axis of the willing against illegal immigration”. He spoke alongside Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, a day after appearing to lend his backing to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an ongoing dispute over migration that has caused a serious rift in her governing coalition.

The 31-year-old leader of Austria, which assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union next month, urged a strong European response to stem the flow of illegal migrants in a press conference on Tuesday with his German counterpart in Berlin.

Ms Merkel is engaged in a standoff with Mr Seehofer, who has delayed the publication of his much-touted 63-point plan on migration and asylum rules because it faces opposition from the chancellor. Their disagreement is centred on one point: the recommendation to turn people away at the German border people who have applied for, or been denied, asylum elsewhere in the EU.

Ms Merkel has argued that such a rule would damage the Dublin regulation – an EU-wide agreement that determines the responsibility of states in relation to asylum applications on the basis of a hierarchical criteria that includes, among other things, family considerations and entry points of applicants. Ms Merkel, who has called on Europe to speak with a single voice following the rupture with the US at the recently concluded G7 summit in Canada, says unilateral adoption of measures to turn away migrants by Berlin would set a precedent that other EU members would seek to follow.


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Mr Seehofer, a member of the Christian Social Union party that is allied with Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, says he is fulfilling his obligations to German citizens by securing the nation's borders. "I have a responsibility for this country, namely to steer and maintain order. And I cannot postpone it until hell freezes over", Mr Seehofer reportedly told Ms Merkel, according to Deutsche Welle.

Mr Kurz, the world’s youngest head of government, found himself drawn into this dispute as he arrived in Berlin this week. He has in the past been vocally critical of Ms Merkel’s handling of migration into Europe. As Austria’s foreign minister in 2016, he said: “Opening the borders in 2015 has led to an influx that Europe can no longer shoulder”.

Though there is no indication that Mr Kurz has changed his opinion, he joined Ms Merkel on Tuesday in calling for a multilateral and European – rather than a unilateral and national – solution to the migrant crisis. He urged EU members to expand the mandate of Frontex, the European border and coastguard agency, and make greater resources available to it. “A strong European solution can only consist of a strengthening of our external borders”, he told a press conference.

Austria, located on Germany’s southern border, could potentially bear the brunt of Mr Seehofer’s policy to turn migrants away at the border. Mr Kurz is walking a tightrope. After a meeting with Mr Seehofer on Wednesday, he appeared once again to repudiate Ms Merkel’s approach. “We shouldn’t wait until we have a catastrophe, like in 2015”, he told reporters. “Instead it is important to act on time.”