Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and German chancellor Angela Merkel
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and German chancellor Angela Merkel

There may be disagreement within the German government on how to fight illegal migration. But Angela Merkel seems to have found a potentially valuable ally in her Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz.

Sebastian Kurz may well feel like a guest who turns up to dinner only to find that the host couple have gotten into a fight and aren't speaking to one another. The Austrian chancellor is in Germany for meetings with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who are engaged in a major row over refugee policy. Seehofer would like Germany to begin turning back would-be asylum seekers at its borders, while Merkel insists on finding a European solution to illegal migration that would involve enhanced controls along the EU's external borders.

"The issue has the potential to seriously damage Europe," Merkel told reporters as she welcomed Kurz to Berlin, characterizing the protection of the EU's external borders as "crucial."

Austria plays a key role in this issue. Firstly, Germany's border with its southern neighbor would likely be the one most affected by Seehofer's idea. And secondly, Austria assumes the rotating presidency of the EU Council in July and has vowed to make the issue of migration central to its six-month tenure.

"We've consciously chosen to focus on the topic of security," Kurz said, saying Vienna wanted to see "more cooperation in Europe."

Beefing up Frontex is the way to go said the two chancellors

European asylum not for everyone

Amidst the domestic German squabbling, Kurz has offered Merkel some welcome support. The 31-year-old Austrian chancellor is often considered more stringently conservative compared to the centrist veteran Merkel, but on the migration issue, they largely see eye to eye.

Merkel was visibly pleased when Kurz told reporters he favored more personnel, better funding and an expanded mandate for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, even if the Austrian chancellor's language is more restrictive than her own.

"Not everyone in the world who is persecuted can find a better life in Europe, and specifically central Europe," Kurz said, adding that his aim was to "stop people from making their way through Europe to apply for asylum in Austria, Germany or Sweden."

Strikingly, it was Kurz to whom reporters directed their initial questions. And he walked a tightrope that saw him underscore his common line with Merkel, while refraining from directly rebuffing Seehofer.

"I'm not getting involved in this internal German debate," Kurz said. "Austria is interested in stopping the flow of illegal migrants. A strong European solution can only consist of a strengthening of our external borders."

Kurz is not a huge fan of Macrons ambitious ideas on EU integration

A more concentrated EU

Merkel will also be happy about Kurz's remarks on another pressing European issue: EU integration after the departure of the United Kingdom.

French President Emmanuel Macron has floated the idea of increasing the scope of the EU and transferring more authority, including financially, to Brussels. Germany is deeply skeptical about this idea, as is its southern neighbor.

"We definitely won't be supporting Macron's ideas for a European finance minister and collectivization of debt," Kurz said.

He added that, in his view, the EU should focus on bigger issues and keep out of smaller ones he said were the responsibility of individual member states. Even if he goes further on this score than Merkel, his is still a position the German chancellor can live with.

Kurz is trying not to get caught in the crossfire between Seehofer and Merkel

A delicate task awaits

For her part, Merkel said that the conflict with the United States at last weekend's G7 summit had reinforced her belief that the EU needed to speak with one voice on foreign policy.

She also sought to play down the conflict with Seehofer, who was forced to postpone the announcement of his "master plan" for migration – originally scheduled for today – because of the row over national versus European borders.

Merkel called the master plan "important" and said that she and Seehofer had agreed to keep talking to resolve their differences.

But that hardly ends the awkwardness. Kurz is going to need to be at his diplomatic best for the latter half of his Germany visit, when he's scheduled to call on none other than Seehofer himself.

Author: Jefferson Chase

First published: June 12, 2018

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