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Merkel, Hollande seek unified European reponse to migrant crisis

Angela Merkel.  PHOTO: Wikipedia

Angela Merkel. PHOTO: Wikipedia

The leaders of Germany and France will meet in Berlin on Monday to seek a unified stance on European efforts to tackle the biggest migrant crisis since World War II, as hundreds more people poured into Serbia in a desperate journey for a better life.

At least 2,000 more migrants entered Serbia overnight from Macedonia, which had declared a state of emergency over the massive numbers pressing into the country from the Greek border.

The meeting between French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years.

EU border agency Frontex said last week that a record 107,000 migrants were at the bloc’s borders last month, with 20,800 arriving in Greece last week alone.

With many seeking to cross into Macedonia from Greece, Skopje closed the border for three days and police used stun grenades and batons to stop hundreds of refugees trying to break through barbed wire fencing, before apparently deciding to let everyone enter.

In Rome, Italian officials said the coastguard had rescued 4,400 migrants from 22 boats in the Mediterranean on Saturday alone in what was understood to be the highest daily figure in years.

“There has to be a new impetus so that what has been decided is implemented,” a source in the French presidency said, referring to EU decisions taken in June to tackle the crisis.

“The situation is not resolving itself,” the source said, adding that the decisions made by the EU “are not sufficient, not quick enough and not up to the task”.

– ‘Europe at its worst’ –

With asylum-seekers coming not just from war zones such as Syria but also from countries without military conflict in southeastern Europe, including Albania, Serbia and Kosovo, calls are mounting for a more unified approach in dealing with the influx.

France and Germany are both urging Brussels to compile a list of countries whose nationals would not be considered asylum-seekers except in exceptional personal circumstances.

Merkel is also travelling Thursday to Vienna, where she will meet with leaders of Balkan states including Albania and Kosovo to find out why “so many thousands of people are coming from these countries”, according to her spokesman Steffen Seibert.

France’s and Germany’s leaders will try to help speed up the setting up of reception centres in overwhelmed Greece and Italy — two countries that have borne the brunt of the crisis — to help identify asylum-seekers and illegal migrants.

“As long as these reception centres are not there and there is no internal solidarity within the EU, the return of migrants — which will dissuade further new arrivals — will not happen,” the French source added.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that the deepening crisis could pose a major threat to the “soul” of Europe.

“On immigration, Europe is in danger of displaying the worst of itself: selfishness, haphazard decision-making and rows between member states,” Gentiloni told Il Messaggero.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel meanwhile said that a four-fold increase in asylum requests in Germany — expected to top 800,000 this year — was his country’s “biggest challenge since reunification” in 1990.

– Russian convoys in Ukraine? –

Beyond the migrant crisis, Merkel and Hollande will later Monday tackle another issue pressing at the EU’s eastern flank — the Ukraine conflict.

The talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko come amid a resurgence of violence in the former Soviet state.

Hours ahead of the talks, Poroshenko accused Russia of sending three military convoys over the border into the separatist-controlled east.

The West believes that Russia has been fanning and arming the 16-month rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, a charge Moscow firmly denies.

Monday’s talks will be notable for the exclusion of Vladimir Putin, which Kiev is keen to play up as a Western snub against the Russian leader, although a French source quickly quashed any interpretation of a “diplomatic war against Russia”.

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