Peter Spiegel

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Austria's Faymann, left, with Merkel and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in November

Germany has received the most attention and Hungary the most denunciation, but in many ways it has been the country in between that has served as the bellwether of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis. Back in September, Austria became one of the first countries along the “Western Balkan route” to find itself awash in migrants after Germany unexpectedly announced it was re-imposing checks on its southern border. A month later, it became the first country inside the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone to reconstruct fences at the border with another Schengen member, neighbouring Slovenia. Then last week it started turning away asylum seekers – though only those who admitted they were trying to get to Scandinavia.

But yesterday, the Austrian government may have taken its most significant step yet by announcing it would cap the number of asylum claims it will accept. Werner Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, said the country would only allow 37,500 to be admitted this year, down from 90,000 who applied for asylum status in 2015. Over the next four years, the limit will be 127,500. “We cannot in Austria take in all asylum seekers,” Mr Faymann said in Vienna. Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung has this excellent analysis piece that points out Mr Faymann long resisted such a cap, but was forced into the announcement by mounting pressure from within his own government.

The move raises serious legal questions, since the Geneva Convention on refugees – of which Austria is a founding signatory – prevents countries from expelling asylum seekers without a hearing, unless they can find a reason on national security grounds. Asked if the European Commission had come to a legal opinion on such quotas, a spokeswoman said it hadn’t – though only because up to now no country had sought such caps. But she hinted Geneva, which is incorporated into EU law, could present a roadblock. “We don’t practice pushbacks, we do not turn away people without first assessing their asylum applications on an individual basis, and this is the process that’s carried out across the EU,” said Natasha Bertaud, the commission’s spokeswoman on refugee issues. Read more

Peter Spiegel

As Brussels shuts down for the Easter holiday, those of us at the Brussels Blog would like to leave readers with a joyous thought to contemplate over the break: Arnold Schwarzenegger as president of the European Council.

As far fetched as the idea may seem, at least one former advisor to the Governator thinks it’s a runner: Terry Tamminen, who served as cabinet secretary (essentially chief policy advisor) to Schwarzenegger during the Austrian-born movie star’s tenure as California governor.

In a Schwarzenegger profile published in the new issue of Newsweek, Tamminen says he has already raised the possibility with his former boss.

“In the next few years, the EU will be looking for a much more high-profile president – somebody who can unify Europe,” Tamminen is quoted as saying. “The French won’t want a German, and the Germans won’t want an Italian. How about a European-born person who went off to America and…could return to be the Washington or Jefferson of a new unified Europe?” Read more

Tony Barber

With Czech President Vaclav Klaus the chief remaining obstacle to final ratification of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, there has been a fair amount of loose talk about how the Czech Republic could – or should – be punished if Klaus refuses to sign it.  On the one hand, supporters of the treaty say it is intolerable that the EU’s eight-year effort at redesigning its institutions should be sabotaged at the finishing post.  If Klaus carries on his delaying tactics much longer, they warn, the Czechs should be denied a seat in the next European Commission.

On the other hand, opponents of the Lisbon treaty are painting the same scenario for quite different reasons.  Just you watch, they say.  The EU will reveal itself as an intolerant, anti-democratic machine, whipping the Czechs merely because they have the temerity to resist the imposition of a treaty they fear undermines their sovereignty. Read more