Steinmeier at Western Balkans Summit: Refugee issues need a European approach

28.08.2015 - Article

After Berlin, Vienna: the second Western Balkans Summit focused on the region’s journey towards EU membership. In view of recent events, the refugee crisis dominated the agenda.

After Berlin, Vienna: the second Western Balkans Summit on 27 August focused on the region’s internal cohesion and journey towards EU membership. In view of recent tragic events, however, the refugee crisis dominated the agenda. Foreign Minister Steinmeier called for a fair distribution of refugees in Europe. Europe had “a duty”, he said, to demonstrate humanity and solidarity with people who have had to flee their homes.

Steinmeier and Kurz
Steinmeier and Kurz© Photothek/Köhler

The Western Balkans Summit in Vienna was overshadowed by the news that around 50 refugees had suffered a horrific death in an abandoned lorry in Austria. In the Austrian capital with Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Parliamentary State Secretary Uwe Beckmeyer from the Economic Affairs Ministry, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock at the incident and called for rapid solutions crafted in a spirit of European cooperation.

At the start of the Western Balkans Summit, before news of the tragedy broke, Foreign Minister Steinmeier appealed for a fair distribution of refugees within Europe and for comparable, humane standards across the EU. The issue of refugees coming to Europe was a focal point of the discussions. Those attending the summit agreed that measures like erecting border fences were not helpful: “We do not advocate border fences. Nor do we believe that border fences will ultimately resolve the migration issue,” Steinmeier insisted. On the contrary, he said, what was needed was “a European approach”.

Group photo
Group photo© Photothek/Köhler

Refugees: Federal Foreign Office puts together humanitarian relief package

The day before the summit (26 August), the Federal Foreign Office had made a million euros in humanitarian aid available in response to the dramatic situation facing refugees travelling through the Western Balkans. Foreign Minister Steinmeier explained that the intention was to support the Governments in these countries so that they could live up to their responsibility to provide swift and effective assistance to the refugees there.

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini was also at the summit and described protecting the growing numbers of refugees as “a moral and legal duty”. The EU, she said, was working on new proposals for joint policy on refugees – including a shared list of safe countries of origin. Speaking at the end of the meeting, Mogherini said that, while there was no magic solution, the road to follow to start making things work was very well-known.

Heading for the Hofburg with Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić
Heading for the Hofburg with Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić© Photothek/Köhler

European Union incomplete without the Balkan countries

At the invitation of the Austrian hosts, the summit brought together the heads of government and foreign and economic affairs ministers of the Western Balkans as well as Germany, France and Italy, plus EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. Subjects under discussion included youth exchange, transport infrastructure and political dialogue between the countries of the Western Balkan region. The intention, according to the German Foreign Minister, was to bring those countries closer together and thereby further their progress towards EU membership.

The Foreign Ministers at a joint press conference
The Foreign Ministers at a joint press conference© Photothek/Köhler

In a joint article, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and his Austrian opposite number, Sebastian Kurz, underlined the significance of the Western Balkan countries’ process of moving closer to the EU: “Without the Western Balkans, the European Union would be incomplete.”

This year’s summit was the second of its kind. The first was held in Berlin in August 2014, at Germany’s initiative. The joint message sent out by the participants of the Berlin summit was an affirmation of the Western Balkans’ prospects of EU membership. The German Government also emphasised its ongoing commitment to the future of the Western Balkans.

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