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Austria and EU on collision course over asylum applications cap

Published 18/02/2016

Werner Faymann (right) arrives for an EU summit in Brussels (AP)
Werner Faymann (right) arrives for an EU summit in Brussels (AP)

The European Union (EU) has warned Austria that its plan to cap the number of people who can apply for asylum is unlawful, but Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has refused to back down.

As EU leaders sought to end their fragmented response to Europe's biggest refugee emergency since the Second World War at a summit meeting, the legal fight with EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos took centre stage.

"Legal opinions will be answered by lawyers. Politically I say: we'll stick to it," Mr Faymann said as he entered the summit meeting.

More than one million people entered the EU in 2015 fleeing conflict or poverty and some 84,000 have entered so far this year.

Overwhelmed by the numbers and frustrated by their inability to agree an effective European response, some EU countries have begun tightening border controls or putting up fences without warning their neighbours.

In the latest in a series of unco-ordinated and unilateral measures by nations, Austria announced on Wednesday it would allow no more than 80 people a day to apply for asylum at its southern border points, as of Friday.

Mr Avramopoulos said in a letter on Thursday that "Austria has a legal obligation to accept any asylum application that is made on its territory or at its border".

The letter to Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said a ceiling on asylum-seekers "would be plainly incompatible with Austria's obligations" under EU and international law.

Ms Mikl-Leitner has said that a maximum 3,200 people a day would be allowed to enter Austria "who are seeking international protection in a neighbouring country".

That is an allusion to Germany which, along with Sweden, has been the preferred destination for most migrants.

But Mr Avramopoulos also warned Austria should not be allowing people to travel through the country if their aim is to apply for asylum elsewhere.

Arriving at the summit, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he understood the reaction of countries like Austria, but he warned the end result could be "the bunching-up of great amounts of people in difficult circumstances in northern Greece".

Greece has been overwhelmed by the entry of some 850,000 people last year, mostly from Turkey.

Thousands are still entering every week. The Greek coastguard has been swamped and the country has barely 10,000 places to shelter those arriving.

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