Austria will continue to Block Bulgaria and Romania for Schengen until it sees a Drop in Asylum Seekers
Austria will maintain its veto on Schengen expansion, which it imposed on Bulgaria and Romania, until it sees a "sustained decline" in the number of asylum seekers, said Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in an interview cited by Politico.
Asylum applications in Austria (not including Ukrainians) almost tripled last year to around 110,000 - the most per capita in the EU - prompting the government to block the Schengen expansion in December.
"What is important for us, if we have to be completely honest, is that the number goes down and there has to be a sustained decline," Schallenberg said, calling the veto a "warning signal" to Brussels. "One has to understand that when we have over 100,000 asylum applications every 12 months, it is difficult for us as Austria to just let this dysfunctional system move forward."
Schallenberg declined to set a time frame for when Vienna might lift its veto on Schengen expansion, but given that refugee arrivals continue to rise — the EU's asylum seeker agency reported a nearly 60 percent year-on-year increase in January — a solution to the impasse around Schengen seems unachievable in the short term.
Schallenberg said his government was encouraged by the EU's "action plan" to tighten border controls and speed up asylum procedures, but needed to see much more progress.
"As a country in the heart of Europe, Austria is very benefited by Schengen and we want it to work," said the minister.
The main reason Austria has so many refugees is that other EU countries along the so-called Balkan route - notably Hungary - refuse to register most asylum seekers, a step that under EU rules would allow Vienna to send them back to this country after arriving in Austria. Under the so-called Dublin rules, the country where the refugee enters the EU and is registered is responsible for processing their 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, the two countries alone would have 1 million, Schallenberg said. Bulgaria and Romania have been seeking to join Schengen for years and reacted angrily to Austria's move. The Netherlands joined Austria in vetoing Bulgaria, but gave the green light to Romania. Critics say Vienna's move unnecessarily undermines EU unity at a time when the bloc's members should be making efforts to show more unity.
Yet Austria's ruling coalition, which is led by Schallenberg's People's Party, has another concern: The country's far-right Freedom Party has a commanding lead in national opinion polls just over a year before the next regular election.
One of the reasons for the jump is that the main issue for the party - migration - has returned to the center of the political debate.
After the refugee influx in 2015, a number of EU countries, including Austria, Germany and France, began to take back control of some border crossings. Schallenberg stressed that his government's ultimate goal with its tough stance on Schengen expansion is to return to the pre-2015 system of true border-free travel.
"We want a system where we don't have to maintain border checks," he added. "No one benefits, and we don't do them because we like it, but because we have no choice."
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