By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, dpa (TNS)
BRUSSELS — Eleven leaders from the European Union and the Balkans conferred Sunday to find common ground on how to handle the migrant tide crossing their countries, with overwhelmed Slovenia warning that the EU will fall apart without a joint approach.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic spoke of “small steps forward” after a first round of talks in Brussels, expressing confidence that “we will be able to overcome all the disputes and all the problems regarding blame games.”
“I’m not sure that we are going to conclude something that would be very helpful immediately, but … I think that all of us will be at least a bit better than we used to,” Vucic said.
Europe is contending with its largest population movement since World War II, with almost 700,000 migrants and asylum seekers arriving by sea this year — many of them from war-torn Syria.
Tens of thousands of refugees have crossed the western Balkans to make their way from Turkey to wealthy northern European countries. The surge has shown no signs of abating despite the onset of colder weather. Bottlenecks in countries with strained resources have left migrants out in the mud, rain and cold.
The nations along the western Balkan route have so far largely been passing on refugees, leading to recriminations and political tensions between neighboring countries.
“Until today, it was difficult to find a solution because a series of countries adopt a stance of ‘not in my own backyard’,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said.
At stake is the future of Europe, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said before the talks.
“If we don’t do all we can together to find a common solution and to deliver it … then this is the beginning of the end of the EU and Europe as such,” he said.
The number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in his small country — more than 60,000 in the last 10 days, as many as 13,000 in one day — is “absolutely unbearable,” Cerar said.
Slovenia is the smallest nation to have inadvertently joined the western Balkan route, after Hungary sealed its border to migrants in mid-October.
“We will not be able to endure this for weeks to follow if we don’t get any help, if there is no cooperation,” Cerar said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the goal at the crisis talks was above all to provide help for refugees living in “unbearable conditions.” She underlined the need for Europeans to see this as “a common duty.”
“Every day counts,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who convened the meeting, told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag. “Otherwise, we will soon see families perishing wretchedly in cold Balkan rivers.”
The commission drafted a 16-point plan for the talks that proposed increased coordination, more shelter and services for needy migrants, and better border controls, including the deployment of support teams to Slovenia and a new mission at the Greek frontier with Albania and Macedonia.
Leaders were also considering whether to agree that “a policy of waving through refugees to a neighboring country is not acceptable,” according to the draft. But some leaders had appeared reluctant before the talks.
Photo: The EU is meeting to discuss what to do with migrants like this one, a boy who is waiting to enter a makeshift camp at the Austrian Slovenian border near the village of Sentilj, Slovenia, October 26, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger