Austria Rejects UN Migration Pact; Visegrad Four to Follow
The right-wing government of the Republic of Austria has announced that it intends to withdraw from the final steps to join the United Nations-sponsored Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The move, as reported by Austrian media on Oct. 31, 2018, makes Austria the third country, alongside Hungary and the United States, to withdraw from the proposed migration pact.
In the midst of the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis facing Europe — the largest such crisis since the Second World War — the United Nations (UN) General Assembly convened a high-level summit on the topic of refugees and migrants in September 2016 that ultimately produced a declaration calling for a global compact to formalize processes for “safe, orderly and regular migration” under the overarching framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Negotiations that began in April 2017 were ultimately concluded in July this year when the high-level working group convened by the UN General Assembly finalized the text of the Global Compact and set early December as the date for the Intergovernmental Conference to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration to be held in Marrakech, Morocco.
In the Sept. 2016 declaration, the proposed compact states that it is a “non-legally binding, cooperative framework that builds on the commitments agreed upon by Member States.” As such, states that ratify the proposed compact are under no obligation to carry out its clauses and retain their full rights to determine and conduct immigration policy on a national level. The signing ceremony to be held in Morocco is essentially an opportunity for states to diplomatically and publicly signal approval and commitment to the ideals and stipulations laid out in the compact.
Critics of the compact, however, have called the proposed agreement a violation of national sovereignty and a possible conflation of illegal and legal migration on the international level.
The United States became the first country to withdraw from negotiations for the compact in December 2017 on the grounds that Washington “cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States” to enforce immigration laws and secure borders and that the “global approach in the New York Declaration is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”
Hungary, under right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, followed suit shortly after the compact’s language was finalized in mid-July 2018, with Hungary’s Foreign Minister asserting that the document was “entirely against Hungary’s security interests” and posed a “threat to the world from the aspect that it could inspire millions” of migrants. As such, Hungary will not send a delegation to the signing ceremony come December.
Like many of its eastern neighbors, Austria’s recent immigration policies have been marked by a sharp turn to the right as voters have delivered right-wing, eurosceptic, populist, and anti-immigration parties to power. While the 2016 Austrian presidential election ultimately rejected a far-right candidate in favor of former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, in the October 2017 election for the lower house of the Austrian Parliament, the Christian democratic conservative Austrian People’s Party (ӦVP) came first with nearly 32 percent of the vote and 62 seats in the 183-member chamber, followed by the incumbent Social Democratic Party (SPӦ, 26.9 percent and 52 seats) and the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party of Austria (FPӦ, 26 percent and 51 seats).
An abortive attempt by the SPӦ to entertain a coalition with the FPӦ fell in favor of a right-wing coalition government negotiated between the ӦVP and the FPӦ. While stressing his government’s priorities for a “strong Europe” and ruling out a referendum on Austria’s continued European Union membership, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ӦVP) constituted a government that gave junior coalition partner FPӦ seven seats in the cabinet, including key posts such as the Vice-Chancellorship and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, and the Interior.
Since then, Austria has joined the Visegrad Four — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia — in opposing calls in the European Union (EU) for all member states to accept quotas for refugees. Austria’s latest move to not join the Global Compact on Migration has been received positively by the conservative governments in Poland and the Czech Republic, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating that “sovereign rules on border protection and migration control are our absolute priority” while Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis expressed his opposition to the compact in the Czech parliament on the grounds that “it’s not clearly interpreted and it could be abused.”
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, criticized the move by Vienna by noting that Austria had played “an extremely constructive and key role” in negotiations before issuing its regrets over the decision of the Austrian government and reaffirming that “migration is a global challenge where only global solutions and global responsibility sharing will bring results.”
The UN’s statements on the matter echoed the EC’s, as the UN Special Representative for International Migration rejected the Austrian government’s concern that the compact would lead to the development of a “human right to migrate” and expressed disappointment over the fact that “a lot of reasons that are advanced for disengaging are either mistaken or do not reflect” the substance and goals of the compact.