Hardline EU ministers form 'axis of the willing' against illegal migrants

Deborah COLE
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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (left) meets German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, hailing an "axis of the willing" along with Italy determined to take a hardline on migration

The hardline interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy have formed an "axis of the willing" to combat illegal immigration, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Wednesday, escalating a Europe-wide row over the issue.

The announcement by Kurz in Berlin after talks with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer marks a shot across the bow at Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is trying to pull together a deal for EU cooperation on placing asylum seekers.

Seehofer -- who is locked in an open migration feud with Merkel that is threatening the stability of her coalition government -- said that he and his far-right Austrian and Italian counterparts, Herbert Kickl and Matteo Salvini, formed their alliance this week.

Their cooperation would extend to "issues of security and terrorism", he said, but did not offer specifics on what it would entail.

Kurz, whose country assumes the EU's rotating presidency on July 1, said he welcomed the "good cooperation that we want to develop between Rome, Vienna and Berlin".

"I think it marks very sensible cooperation that will contribute to reducing illegal migration to Europe," Kurz told reporters at a convivial news conference with Seehofer, in marked contrast with a far more formal exchange he had with Merkel late Tuesday.

"We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration."

The use of the phrase raised eyebrows on social media for its echoes of the World War II alliance of fascist powers, as well as the deep divisions in Europe left by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 backed by a "coalition of the willing".

- 'Litmus test for Europe' -

Merkel, widely seen as Europe's most prominent proponent of a generous refugee policy, declined to comment on the "axis" initiative, which appeared to have been agreed without her involvement.

She has firmly rejected a plan put forward by Seehofer to turn back at German borders any asylum seeker already registered in another EU country.

Merkel argues that her country should not go it alone while Europe searches for a common migration policy, which she called Wednesday a "litmus test for the future and the cohesion of Europe".

"Particularly in a situation in which Europe, especially on these issues, is in a very fragile state, it is very, very important to me that Germany not act unilaterally," she said.

Seehofer has won support from Salvini, who on Monday flatly refused to allow a rescue vessel carrying hundreds of migrants to dock.

The move was sharply criticised by France, touching off a spiralling dispute between the European heavyweights ahead of a crunch EU summit later this month.

Despite the gulf between them, Seehofer insisted Wednesday that he aimed to strike a compromise with Merkel this week, although what shape that would take appeared completely unknown.

"We will definitely find a solution," he said. They were reportedly set to meet for crisis talks later Wednesday.

- 'Poison for EU cohesion' -

Merkel was re-elected for a fourth term in September but saw her ruling majority depleted by voter unease over the influx of more than one million migrants since 2015.

Kurz won the Austrian chancellery last year in an alliance with the far-right vowing to tackle illegal immigration, an issue that also propelled a populist alliance to power in Italy.

The Austrian centre-right leader said in Berlin Wednesday he was counting on the backing of his tough line during his EU presidency from countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also consistently either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.

Merkel leads a coalition in Berlin of her Christian Democrats, their Bavarian allies CSU to which Seehofer belongs, and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the SPD threw his weight behind Merkel in the migration spat Wednesday in a wide-ranging speech on Europe.

Saying that Europe must do "everything in its power to keep migration from becoming poison for EU cohesion", Maas warned member states to "stop using the migration issue as domestic propaganda against the EU".