Austrian Chancellor Faymann ‘Memories of Our Continent’s Darkest Period’

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Police officers guard a local refugee camp in the village of Roszke at the Serbian-Hungarian border on September 4, 2015 where migrants are being held. Hungarian police had temporarily shut the Roszke border crossing with Serbia, after 300 migrants escaped from the nearby refugee camp. AFP PHOTO / CSABA SEGESVARI

In an interview, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann discusses Germany’s reaction to the refugee crisis, his disappointment in Hungary’s response and his idea of sanctions for Eastern European countries that aren’t sharing the burden.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chancellor, is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán right when he says that Germany bears some responsibility for the refugee crisis?

Faymann: No. On the contrary, Angela Merkel has shown a great sense of responsibility. Unlike most European Union countries, Germany, Austriaand Sweden recognize that there are refugees fleeing from war. We abide by the right to asylum. Orbán is acting irresponsibly when he declares everyone to be an economic refugee. He is consciously leading a policy of deterrence. To put refugees in trains with the belief they will go somewhere else brings up memories of our Continent’s darkest period. (Editor’s note: On Sept. 3, refugees in Budapest boarded a train they believed was heading toward the Austrian border, but were instead stopped about 35 kilometers from the Hungarian capital in Bicske, which is home to a camp for asylum-seekers.)

SPIEGEL: The Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has criticized decisions by the German and Austrian governments to allow 20,000 refugees from Hungary to travel to Munich. They’re warning that it will have the effect of attracting more refugees.

Faymann: I don’t think a humanitarian operation is going to sharpen the “attraction effect.” Before that point, 300,000 refugees had already come to Germany and about 50,000 had come to Austria. The things that most attract refugees are the economic power and prosperity of a country. We wouldn’t want to destroy those things so that less refugees would come, would we? Bavaria has also been unable to prevent refugees from entering its borders. That would only work if barbed-wire fences and watchtowers were erected everywhere in Europe — that’s the only way to deter people who have fled for their lives. But then Schengen would be dead — and with it, the Europe of open internal borders. I would hope that the CSU doesn’t want that either.

SPIEGEL: Your interior minister also issued a directive in June not to process any new asylum applications.

Faymann: We weren’t anticipating such high refugee numbers. Under the Dublin System, countries like Hungary are committed to protecting the external EU borders, registering all refugees and reviewing their right to asylum. So far, about 150,000 people have crossed the borders into Hungary, but Orbán only has space for a few thousand in initial reception centers. Those who traveled onwards are reporting that they received almost nothing to eat and were provided with very poor medical care.

SPIEGEL: The European Commission, the EU executive, is recommending refugees be distributed according to a strict quota. Does that suggestion make sense?

Faymann: That was overdue. When I pushed for the quota in 2013, all were against it, including Germany. The number of supporters is growing, but there is still no certain majority for the proposal. Countries like Hungary are acting as if Dublin works. Orbán is building a fence to Serbia, but isn’t saying where the people who have a right to asylum should go. We need to keep those who are shirking from winning in the end.

SPIEGEL: Many Eastern European governments claim that a massive influx of Muslims would place too much of strain on their society.

Faymann: The idea of classifying human rights based on religion is intolerable. According to estimates, about 7.5 million people may come to Europe in the next several years. That would be 1.5 percent of the EU population. Nobody has been able to convince me that we cannot properly handle this. Of course we also need to send those who have no right to asylum back. That’s what the planned hotspots at the external EU borders are there for. But without a fair quota, this won’t work on the long term.

SPIEGEL: Is it even imaginable that the quota system will be able to be pushed through in the EU by majority decision?

Faymann: The opponents of the quota should not have a false sense of certainty. If they are not open to compromises, we should try to push through the quota with a qualified majority. But we should also think about sanctions, by which we, for example, cut money from the Structural Fund, from which all Eastern European member states profit.

SPIEGEL: The Eastern Europeans say that the one has nothing to do with the other.

Faymann: It is all tied together. It is one and the same European Union. In the past, it was about addressing economic and social inequality. Now it is about humanitarian inequality. Germany and Austria, after all, have been showing solidarity for years — both countries are net payers (meaning they pay more into the EU than they got back in subsidies). There are, for good reasons, penalties against budget offenders who don’t abide by the criteria of the Stability and Growth Pact. In order to cope with the movement of refugees we need penalties against those who violate principles of solidarity.

SPIEGEL: During the Greece negotiations, Merkel presented herself as a hardliner. Now she is being celebrated as an ideal European. Is Germany too dominant in Europe?

Faymann: No. But Germany often waited too long during the euro crisis. I also always criticized that. In contrast, the German Chancellor reacted quickly and properly to the refugee issue.

Update:

On Saturday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto responded to the comments made by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann in his SPIEGEL interview. Szijjarto described Peymann’s remarks as “mindless slander” that is “unworthy of a 21st century leading European politician,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The current Hungarian government has resisted the imposition of a quota system that would redistribute refugees around the continent and Prime Minister Viktor Orban has argued that the number of Muslims arriving in his country represented a threat to Hungarian society.

Szijjarto added that Faymann had been leading a “smear campaign” against Hungary over the past weeks and that by feeding the dreams of economic migrants, he was imperiling any chance at European consensus. Szijjarto also said in response to the interview that he would be summoning Austria’s ambassador in Hungary for a meeting.

Austrian Chancellor Faymann is also expected to meet with Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss the refugee crisis and Germany’s decision on Sunday to close the border to Austria.

Interview conducted by Horand Knaup and Christoph Schult

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