The EU is not an ATM

Is the migrant crisis creating a new bloc of countries within the EU that will oppose all European legislation?

Santiago de la Presilla, Angelika Mlinar
3 May 2016

Santiago de la Presilla: The first round of presidential elections in Austria saw the far-right Freedom Party of Austria’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, win with 36% of the vote. What are your thoughts on the results? Are you surprised?

Angelika Mlinar: One of my main political motivations has been, still is, and will be, as the English past-perfect tense implies, fighting the right-wing in Austria. I’m a liberal; I’m fighting for the rule of law, for democracy, for a free market and a prosperous economy. This is the exact opposite of what the FPÖ stands for.

In regards to the election, I was actually quite surprised. We did not expect such a high turnout for the FPÖ, and I did think he would get into the second round, but not with this kind of force.

Earlier this week the Austrian parliament put forward legislation that gives federal government authorities the power to declare a state of emergency if they see a sudden rise in migrant flows. This means they’ll be able to refuse entry to migrants or set caps, as it happened in February. Do you think this will help curve the flow at all?

It’s a completely inappropriate approach; it’s against the Austrian constitution; it’s against human rights conventions; it’s against the European Convention on Human Rights — this is in breach of everything. All New Austria’s (NEOS) national MPs voted against it. We have a clear stand that this is, first of all, against international law and completely unnecessary.

How can a country like Austria, one of the richest EU countries, with a population of 8.5 million, declare a state of emergency when 90,000 people are applying for asylum? We don’t even know how many of these people are still in Austria; you cannot get the figures. You can check for yourself with the Ministry of Interior, but [?] it’s not possible. Being in the Schengen Area we don’t know how many people are still in Austria. According to my knowledge, the last figures that are available state that there are 74,000 people.

Those figures are from the system where refugees are entitled to social benefits. That’s it.

So you’re one of the critics that says that the current Austrian government is just pandering to the FPÖ in order to appease right-wing voters?

Exactly, but it just doesn’t work. This is what I call in politics ‘paradox intervention’, the same thing that David Cameron did with the EU referendum, the same thing the Dutch government did with this idiotic Ukrainian referendum, which they don’t know how to get out of. It’s nonsense. This is simply bad politics; it’s just wrong and stupid.

When it comes to V4 relations with Austria, it seems like they didn’t agree on much before the migrant crisis, but now they finally found something they can oppose as a bloc. Do you see Austria becoming an informal partner of the V4, maybe even being called a ‘V5’ at the European Council?

This is our impression. The approach of the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs was not to advance with a European initiative, trying to convince neighbouring countries to unite in solidarity.

No, instead he travelled the Western Balkan countries and made the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) close down its borders, therefore destabilizing the whole area. Just think about it: if you destabilize the Western Balkans, good luck with reducing the numbers of asylum seekers in the future. This is also something that the US State Department told me in February — these are countries that just aren’t stable; we all know it. With unstable governments, the whole migration situation didn’t explode only because the migrants weren’t stepping on each other’s toes; once this happens with the summer approaching… we will see a lot of casualties.

ALDE has been one of the loudest voices at the European Parliament when discussing the constitutional crisis in Poland. If the situation does continue to deteriorate, do you think it’ll end up with EU diplomatic sanctions against Poland? And if it does, isn’t this just going to fuel an already growing anti-EU sentiment amongst Central and Eastern European member states?

This is a dangerous game. Sanctions should be the last resort, and you better play that card carefully. You also have to be fair; Poland’s prime minister was called in front of the plenary in Strasbourg and she swiftly showed up. We had a different situation with Hungary, where the European People’s Party (EPP) was protecting their difficult child (Orbán) much longer.

These kinds of political games have to be taken into account. Law and Justice (PiS) is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and it’s not such a strong group. This means that they’re really exposed. We have to see what Commission Vice President Timmermans brings back from Warsaw.

While we’re on the subject of Poland, I wanted to know your thoughts on PiS’ plans to ban abortion completely. I know you’re very outspoken on women’s rights and gender equality. Do you think this is something the EU should get involved in, or should it also play its cards carefully?

I do think that this is a human right’s issue; this is a debate we have to have. At the end of the day, of course it’ll be up to national legislation. We have to discuss it, but it cannot be that we revert 100 years in time.

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Hungary’s Orbán proposed a referendum on EU migrant quotas; do you see Austria doing the same if Hofer wins the presidential elections?

Hofer already said he’d do a referendum on TTIP, which is bizarre because it’s not clear what the legal basis of that might even look like. But then again, the FPÖ is not a party that particularly cares about the rule of law and EU provisions. This is the typical populist approach — holding a referendum to an issue like quotas while we’re discussing the right of asylum. This goes against all principles.

What about countries like Poland, where a clear majority simply does not want to take any refugees or migrants under EU quotas? How do you push this into countries where it’s just such an unpopular policy?

Then let’s talk about structure funds. I mean, quite honestly… There are certain limits to debates on h0w we actually share burdens. The EU is not an ATM; it’s not an organization that is only there to fill your budget. It’s an international setting, which is a huge humanitarian achievement — 28 countries uniting based on treaties, deciding to share their common future. This also means that you have to deal with difficult situations.

I would really advice the Visegrad countries to not push it too hard. There’s a certain limit to our patience. I am not in favour of threats but don’t come with this referendum idea… I’m also against refugees. Who wants to have refugees? Refugees mean that somebody had to flee his or her home country. These people should not forget that there was a time when Poles were fleeing. We should think further than just the opinion polls of today and tomorrow.

You yourself visited a refugee camp in Lebanon and you said that the ‘EU needs to stabilize the region’, but that is easier said than done, isn’t it?

We have to at least try and solve the situation. This is our task — the EU doesn’t have a common foreign and security policy, and we don’t have an EU military. We have the UK and France doing their own thing while the rest just cry out for the US.

We have deals that have been done for sunny days and right now we’re in the middle of a storm.

So you obviously subscribe to the meme of ‘This isn’t a refugee crisis but a management crisis’…

That’s correct. Talk to Lebanese or Jordanian officials and they’ll tell you openly: ‘What’s your problem?’

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said that the EU has lost its appeal because it’s just intervening too much in citizens’ affairs. Do you also think the EU is biting off more than it can chew?

The EU is nothing but the combination of 28 member states. You can do as much as the member states allow you to do; it’s all just a collaboration of the European Council and the governments. I wouldn’t really blame the Commission or the European Parliament, because we do what the member states ask us to do.

You basically have a power fight between the national level and the European level, because, of course, the national governments feel that they’re losing their importance, since 80% of all legislation is being decided at the European level. To put in bluntly, you do have to fight for your right to exist. But we have to understand that this is not a game anymore: Germany against France, or Italy against Spain… We are in a globalized world. We either play a role as a true European Union or we just completely disappear as a factor.

Angelika Mlinar is an Austrian lawyer, businesswoman, politician, and a member of the Slovenian ethnic minority in Carinthia. Since 2014, she has been a Member of the European Parliament for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist and communications advisor. He writes mostly about European politics, Poland, and foreign policy.