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Austria proposes EU military help to toughen border control

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria proposed on Thursday using European Union armed forces to support the bloc’s border guards in barring undocumented migrants, as Vienna’s conservative-far right coalition seeks tougher control of EU land and sea frontiers.

Austria's Defence Minister Mario Kunasek addresses the media before a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Defence Minister Mario Kunasek outlined his plan, based on Austria’s past use of soldiers at its borders, to his EU counterparts at a closed-door meeting in Vienna, stressing that soldiers would be under police control, diplomats said.

“We have got to protect our borders effectively,” Kunasek told reporters after the meeting, saying there was a “positive discussion” on the proposal.

Several EU governments separately expressed concern, reflecting divisions among member states on how to handle migration, resettle refugees within the bloc and prevent further waves of arrivals.

But Austria - the new chair of the EU’s six-month rotating presidency - is determined to push the bloc to prevent any repeat of the 2015 crisis when more than a million migrants arrived in Europe from North Africa and the Middle East.

Italy and Hungary have also fiercely rejected the EU’s current migration policy, respectively ordering ports closed to most migrant arrivals by sea and building a border wall.

The proposal to put the military at the service of the EU’s Frontex border agency follows an Austrian drill in June, overseen by the country’s far-right interior minister, which enacted the arrival of hundreds of migrants and involved Black Hawk helicopters and soldiers.

The EU already has a naval mission in the Mediterranean which goes after people traffickers. On land, however, efforts to deepen military, police and civilian border cooperation have not progressed, despite a declaration to do so by more than a dozen countries in central and southeastern Europe in 2017.

Germany and Estonia were among the doubters on the Austrian plan. “There are very few ways that the military, even theoretically, can be used in border areas,” Estonia’s Defence Minister Juri Luik told Reuters. “If you don’t have a military conflict, everything can be handled by police.”

One Austrian official said the proposal aimed at creating a system to use European militaries’ assets, such as medical units, helicopters and soldiers, if police were overwhelmed.

Police or civilian authorities would also oversee any operations involving soldiers and could decide if personnel were armed or not, the official said.

The European Commission has proposed raising the number of EU border guards to 10,000 in the next seven-year EU common budget from 2021, from just several hundred today. Austria believes soldiers could either support them or be used until Frontex reaches that level.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; editing by David Stamp