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Thousands Of Arriving Migrants Burden Balkan Countries


When Hungary shut its border to refugees and migrants this week, Croatia had harsh words for its neighbor, saying Croatia's borders were open. Then Croatia had second thoughts, which raises questions about the support the European Union is giving member states on the frontlines of the migrant crisis and also the EU's long-cherished principle of open borders. For more, we reached Maximilian Popp with the German magazine Der Spiegel. Thank you for joining us.


MONTAGNE: I want to start with Croatia, which is a small country, not a wealthy one, that suddenly had thousands of migrants pass into its territory within hours of saying that its border was open and then, rather quickly yesterday, backed off somewhat with Croatia's interior minister saying that any migrant not actually seeking asylum as a refugee would be considered an illegal migrant. Obviously, the numbers make people think.

POPP: That's something we're experiencing all over the continent at the moment. The countries, especially, at the outside borders of Europe and of the Schengen Area cannot really cope with the situation, have huge problems in dealing with the crisis. And the response they are giving so far is it’s shutting down their borders. And it's like trying to deter refugees, and that's a very tragic development.

MONTAGNE: You know, you mentioned the Schengen Area. I think a lot of people, at least in America, don't quite understand what we speak about when you speak of the Schengen Area - it’s real core to the identity of the European Union.

POPP: Exactly. The Schengen Area is a huge achievement. It means that there are basically no borders within Europe and that people, Europeans, can travel without being controlled, without being stopped. It's, in particular, the countries which are at the boundaries of the Schengen Area who do have to control the incoming refugees, and that is something which hasn't really happened in the last weeks and month. And that's also reason why now other countries more in the center of Europe like Germany, for example, started to reintroduce controls by themselves - because they say, OK, if those countries at the borders of Europe cannot deal with it, we will re-establish controls. And that leads to the end of this, like, very core principle of the European Union, and that's free movement of people. And so what is at stake here is really the European project itself.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it then unfair to Hungary, which has taken quite a lot of criticism, because it is one of those countries on the edge, in a way, and it has had terrible trouble controlling something that was totally unexpected and quite overwhelming.

POPP: Absolutely. It's unfair. The architecture of the European asylum system has been wrong from the beginning, and that was a system that was created by the countries in the center, by Germany, where the government was saying, OK, it's the countries at the outside borders which have to cope with the situation. And Germany was very well off because for a long time there was not a huge number of people coming, and so the countries at the borders could deal with it. But now with the war in Syria, more and more people in need coming. And we clearly see that this system doesn't work, and there has to be a better burden share, a system where all 28 European member states receive refugees. And that is not happening because the system so far really puts the whole responsibility on the shoulders of just a very few countries which happen to be at the outside borders of the EU. And that, frankly, is unacceptable system. If Europe fails here, it fails in general.

MONTAGNE: Maximilian Popp is an editor with the German magazine Der Spiegel. Thank you very much for joining us.

POPP: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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