Migrants Crisis Sparkles Rifts Among EU Members

Politics - October 2, 2023

Austria could be taken to the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) by two EU Member States, Italy and Romania. Although the two countries’ complaints relate to different cases, there is one common thread: migration issues.

While for the government in Bucharest, a lawsuit at the CJEU is the last weapon to “convince” Austria to accept Romania into Schengen, the Italian government is preparing an action to force Vienna to lift restrictions on Italian goods vehicles at the Brenner Pass. The migration argument – which Austria used in the case of Romania, accusing it of not coping with alleged huge waves of illegal immigration – is now being used against it by Italy. 

“You can’t pontificate at Italy’s expense, demanding reception and integration (of migrants) in Lampedusa, while blocking the border at the Brenner Pass,” Italy used the migration issue in turn, accusing the European Commission and Austria, according to Agerpres, citing ANSA. 

Meanwhile, waiting for Vienna to sensitise itself under these pressures, Romania has found a way to “tax” Austria by using its veto within the North Atlantic Alliance to block two Austrian military officers from attending NATO meetings. Austria’s participation in NATO meetings has also been blocked by Turkey for several years, starting in 2016. At that time the subject of the discord between Turkey and Austria was Austria’s veto of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu warned that Romania will use “everything in its power” to achieve the Romanians’ desire to join the Schengen Area and announced that he would take Austria to the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) if it votes against Romania’s accession in December. At the same time, he invited Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer to build “barbed wire and electric walls”, if he considers the Schengen area an outdated concept. 

“I will never be hypocritical, I cannot say that I have nothing against Romania and that the Schengen area is outdated. Then why did we vote last year with Croatia. It’s a legitimate question not from me as Prime Minister, it’s a legitimate question from the Romanians to Prime Minister Nehammer. If Schengen is so destroyed, I have no problem with Austria leaving Schengen, building barbed wire and electric walls, I have no problem. If Austria wants this approach with fences, let it pay for them, let it leave Schengen”, Marcel Ciolacu told the Romanian press.

Romania uses everything at its disposal

Two members of the Austrian army have been waiting in Brussels for weeks for their NATO accreditation. Access has been delayed because Romania has asked for time for further evaluation, the Austrian press reported, adding that it is certain this is in retaliation for the Vienna government’s veto on Schengen. According to publications that have covered the issue, Romania’s NATO delegation declined to comment on the matter. This is not the first time that Austria’s access to NATO has been blocked by a member country.  Austria is not a NATO member state but participates in NATO actions, as a member of the “Partnership for Peace” and in NATO-led operations with a UN Security Council mandate.  As mentioned before, Austria’s participation in NATO meetings has been blocked by Turkey for years, starting in 2016 in the context of Austria’s veto of the country’s EU accession negotiations, and was only unblocked in 2018. Moreover, it was not until 2022 that cooperation between Austria and NATO in the Partnership for Peace was fully possible.

The second country threatening Austria with a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice is Italy. Through the voice of Deputy Prime Minister Mateo Salvini, the Italian state accuses Chancellor Nehammer’s government of being guilty of unfair competition by pursuing environmental arguments. The Italian Deputy Prime Minister announced that on the Brenner Pass issue, after four years of inaction by the European Commission, the government led by Georgia Meloni has decided to activate the procedure foreseen by the EU Treaty to bring an action before the European Court of Justice against another (member) state for violation of EU law. 

“We are facing an act of violence and political arrogance by a government of an EU member state which must be stopped. (…) The restrictions were introduced by Austria, on paper, for environmental reasons, but the environment has nothing to do with it. It is simply unfair Austrian competition against entrepreneurs and hauliers in Italy, Germany and the whole European continent,” Salvini was quoted by ANSA and quoted by Agerpres.

Like the Romanian interior and foreign ministers of all the successive governments since Romania applied for membership of the Schengen free movement area, the current holders of these portfolios are also trying to dismantle the arguments that Romania does not meet its obligations to defend the Union’s external borders.

“We are engaged in an intensive political and technical dialogue and we appreciate that there have been developments that directly address the concerns raised by the Austrian side regarding the fight against illegal migration. In this regard, I would like to underline the important progress in the implementation of the European Council Conclusions of 9 February 2023, on all dimensions, to which Romania has directly contributed, for example through the implementation of a pilot project at the common border with Serbia to show good practices in the field of external border protection, as well as through supporting the efforts of European agencies in this field. We are also working bilaterally with other Member States, including Austria, in effectively managing the challenges posed by illegal migration. (…) Romania has done its utmost, as a state on the EU’s external border, to act on the basis of the principles of solidarity and responsibility”, says Foreign Minister Luminița Odobescu, on the ministry’s website.

Less than 3% of migrants entering the Schengen area pass through Romania

Romania is not the source nor is it on the route of migrants from Asia as the Austrian state claims. Less than 3% of migrants entering the Schengen area pass through Romania.

“It is important to stress that Romania is not the source or on the migration route. (…) Our expectation from Austria is that it recognises the reality that by joining Schengen, Romania brings a definite added value to the common border protection effort. In this logic, calling for other justifications is not in the interest of the Union, of our credibility as Member States and as a Union and of the huge potential for cooperation between our countries”, the Romanian official continues.

Official figures from Frontex, an agency that brings together representatives of the Schengen member states, set up precisely for the purpose of combating illegal migration, contradict Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and support the arguments of officials in Bucharest. Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode also said that less than 3% of migrants entering Schengen pass through Romania. These entries into Romania would have been from Serbia or Bulgaria, but none from the Black Sea, according to Frontex’s 2022-2023 Risk Analysis Report. In the first ten months of 2022, Frontex reported 281,000 illegal entries into the EU, accounting for almost half of those on the Western Balkans route. According to experts in the field, the majority of illegal crossings of EU borders occur along the Mediterranean Sea route to Western European countries, which is why Frontex suggests those would be the most important borders to monitor. So with no illegal crossings detected, Romania’s maritime border is not a threat. Three quarters of illegal crossings in the Western Balkans take place on Serbia’s borders with EU countries (not just Romania, but also Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia).

At the same time, newsweek.ro, citing the Austrian press, reveals that the argument about the large number of applications filed in Austria today no longer holds water either.  In August, 6,958 asylum applications were filed in Austria. This is the highest monthly figure this year, but at the same time also the biggest decrease compared to a comparable month in 2022, i.e. a decrease of 53%. Overall, the number of asylum applications in Austria fell by 40% in the first eight months.

“Asylum applications represent almost three times more applications than in the entire year before the coronavirus, i.e. 2019. The difference stems from the fact that in the past two years, many refugees actually just wanted to cross Austria and filed an application when they were apprehended, but immediately continued their journey to their actual destination countries,” newsweek.ro reports, citing Der Standard.