Austria has bluntly told the EU that it does not want to accept any more refugees, arguing that it has already taken in enough.
Vienna wants an exemption from receiving any more asylum-seekers, in a blow to the EU’s flailing relocation scheme.
Austria took in around 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, representing more than one percent of its population.
Many of them were Syrians who had fled the war in their homeland and reached Austria after crossing from Turkey to Greece and then following the so-called Balkan route.
"We believe an exception is necessary for Austria for having already fulfilled its obligation. We will discuss that with the European Commission," Christian Kern, the Chancellor, said on Tuesday. "We will send a letter as quickly as possible and then begin discussions." The tough talk was viewed as an attempt by the centrist coalition to undermine support for the far-Right Freedom Party.
Under the plan adopted in September 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, 160,000 asylum seekers who had made it to Greece and Italy were to be resettled in other EU countries over two years. But so far only around 15,000 have been relocated. The scheme expires in September.
The European Commission granted Vienna a temporary exception because of the large number of people it had taken in, but that has since expired. Austria was expected to fulfil its quota of 1,953 refugees, Brussels said. "Austria is now expected to fulfil its legal obligation ... to start relocating," said Natasha Bertaud, a Commission spokeswoman. "No country can unilaterally withdraw from a legally binding decision.”
There has been staunch opposition to the relocation scheme, in particular from Eastern European countries, some of which have said they are only prepared to accept Christian refugees.
On Tuesday, the leaders of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary – who together make up the Visegrad Group - said they would not be “blackmailed” into taking refugees by threats of financial sanctions by Brussels.
"Poland and the Visegrad Group will never agree to this blackmail or to such conditions being dictated," said Beata Szydlo, the Polish prime minister.
Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, also described as "blackmail" any attempt to link the refugee issue with funding from Brussels.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, defended his highly controversial policy of detaining all asylum seekers in border camps. He said the policy, which has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups, was serving to protect the rest of Europe. “We are defending Hungary, we are defending the countries behind us and we can say that Austrians and German can sleep in peace," he said.
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