FRAUENKIRCHEN, Austria (Reuters) – Austria said on Monday it will meet with its Balkan neighbours to discuss what action they might take if a deal with Turkey aimed at restricting the flow of illegal migrants into the European Union collapses.
Turkey has threatened to walk away from the deal agreed in March if Turks are not granted visa-free travel to the bloc, while a crackdown by President Tayyip Erdogan since a failed coup attempt in July has discomfited European leaders.
“Very significant cracks are apparent in this deal between Europe and Turkey and we simply have to prepare for what will happen if this deal no longer holds,” Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told a news conference after a meeting of his counterparts and other defence officials from the region.
Austria, Macedonia, Serbia, and other countries coordinated the imposition in February of border restrictions that largely shut down what was then the main migrant route into Europe, causing a logjam in Greece before the deal with Turkey.
After hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed their territories in a wave of arrivals that began last year, Austria and its allies fear a collapse of the deal with Turkey will lead to another surge, playing into the hands of populist parties.
Turkey agreed in March to stop illegal migrants from crossing into Greece in exchange for financial aid for those in its care, the promise of visa-free travel for its citizens to much of the EU, and accelerated EU membership talks.
But there has been deadlock over the plan to grant Turks visa-free access to Europe, with Brussels first wanting Turkey to change its anti-terrorism laws, which it deems too broad.
Ankara’s possible reintroduction of the death penalty, which Erdogan has said he would sign if parliament approves it, could further jeopardise the agreement. European countries have also criticised Turkey’s detention last week of leaders of the main pro-Kurdish opposition party.
“It is the unanimous opinion of all those present that all means, all available forces must be combined, that we must prepare ourselves for what will actually happen the next day if this deal between Turkey and the European Union collapses,” Doskozil said, without specifying what measures would be needed.
The meeting of defence officials from 10 countries in central, eastern and southeastern Europe included Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, all of which lie between Greece and Austria, the main migrant conduit into Germany.
Doskozil said he would seek to arrange a meeting of defence and interior ministers from the same countries in the coming weeks. He said it might be expanded to include Romania and Bulgaria but not Greece, which recalled its ambassador to Austria when it was similarly snubbed in February.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Catherine Evans)