BRUSSELS/VIENNA (Reuters) - The European Union’s executive proposed on Wednesday to suspend a third of the relocations of migrants to Austria as requested last year by Vienna, which has already taken steps to cut the number of people it receives.
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean into Europe last year. The U.N. Refugee Agency says some 74,000 have landed in Greece and Italy so far in 2016 and the influx had caused a political crisis in the bloc.
The 28-nation union agreed to relocate people from Greece and Italy, which are struggling under the influx, to share the burden more evenly between other EU countries.
But the system is barely operational, with only around 500 people actually relocated - and none from within the EU to Austria, which had been due to take in nearly 2,000 people under the bloc’s plan to relocate 160,000 people.
Last year, however, around 700,000 migrants entered Austria outside of the EU’s failing relocation system and some 90,000 of them applied for asylum there.
The European Commission’s move on Wednesday therefore has a largely political - rather than practical - significance as an attempt to avoid alienating Vienna and to prevent more unilateral measures by EU countries that further undermine the bloc’s unity.
“Austria in December asked the Commission to suspend relocation to Austria temporarily. So this is the positive reply to the request,” a spokesperson for the Austrian interior ministry said on Wednesday.
The decision means Austria has an additional year, on top of the two years under the initial relocation plan, to host a third of its allocation of migrants.
Vienna, which initially had the same “open-door” policy for refugees as Germany, recently said it wanted to speed up deportations and repeatedly complained of other countries not accepting more migrants in the name of European solidarity.
It strengthened border controls and said it would not allow more than 37,500 asylum requests this year as it seeks to reduce overall immigration. Vienna said its cap this year should be a “wake-up call” for Brussels.
Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier in Brussels; Editing by Dominic Evans