By Valentina Pop
BRUSSELS--European governments are weighing options that could
temporarily seal off Greece from the border-free Schengen area and
prolong border controls for up to two years, in reaction to the
At a meeting on Monday in Amsterdam, European Union interior
ministers will discuss steps that could be taken against Greece in
the coming months allowing for the extension of border checks
within the 26-strong border-free Schengen area, if all other
measures to stem the influx of migrants fail.
More than a million refugees and migrants from countries such as
Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe last year, mostly via
Turkey and Greece and then continued their journey through the
Balkans to Austria, Germany and the Nordic countries.
Security concerns about the identity of some of the migrants
have increased following the revelation that at least two of the
terrorists in the Paris attacks on November last year traveled on
the migrant route through Greece and posed as Syrian refugees. A
series of sexual assaults and robberies carried out in several
German cities on New Year's Eve by men of north-African or Middle
Eastern origin, some of whom were registered asylum seekers, have
only added to those concerns.
In November last year, EU governments piled pressure on Greece
and floated the prospect of suspending the country from Schengen if
it doesn't step up registration for incoming migrants. They also
insisted for EU border patrols to be deployed both at Greece's sea
border with Turkey and on land, at Greece's northern border with
Greece did step up registration and EU patrols were deployed,
but to some EU governments, notably Austria, the efforts are still
On Saturday, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner
told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that "if the Greek government
doesn't finally do more to secure the external borders, then we
need to talk openly about Greece's temporary suspension from the
In the past few months, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and
Slovenia have all put in place border checks, in a bid to slow down
the migration influx within the Schengen area and better control
who is entering their territory.
But under current rules, internal border checks can be kept only
for a limited period. The deadline for Austria and Germany, who
were the first to introduce border checks in September, runs out in
May. The only way to extend them for up to two years is if there is
a systemic failure at one of the bloc's external borders, meaning
If ministers agree to go down that road, the European
Commission, the bloc's executive, would need to publish a report in
the coming two weeks saying that Greece isn't properly guarding the
borders, said one EU official familiar with the talks.
Greece would then have three months' time to remedy the
situation at its borders. If by then, the migrant influx continues
at the current pace and Greece is still found in fault of guarding
the borders, ministers would have to approve the suspension of
Greece and Germany and Austria could continue their border checks
beyond May, the official said.
A spokeswoman for the German interior ministry said that since
no reduction of the refugee influx is foreseeable, the German
government seeks to prolong existing border controls in line with
the Schengen rules. She said border controls "are required to
register refugees, send back those who don't qualify for asylum and
to ensure public safety."
Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, whose country would become
the first Schengen country on the migrant trail if Greece were to
be suspended, insists on the need to secure Greece's northern
border with Macedonia--so that migrants don't cross through the
Balkans in the first place.
In an open letter sent to fellow EU leaders on Jan. 18, Mr.
Cerar urged the EU to help Macedonia with policemen, technical
equipment and money to stop the migrants at the border with Greece.
By securing that border, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden would
no longer need to put up border checks and that the measure would
also eliminate the risk of renewed tensions in the Balkans, he
said. His proposal will also be discussed on Monday.
In November, Macedonia erected a fence at its border with Greece
and has since filtered migrants by nationality, sending back to
Greece anyone who isn't Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in the past months has
repeatedly warned against turning Greece into a massive refugee
camp and insisted that the problem lies in Turkey, not Greece.
EU leaders in November struck a deal with Turkey and pledged to
pay EUR3 billion ($3.2 billion) and offer visa-free travel for
Turkish citizens, in return for Turkey stemming the flow. But so
far, arrivals have remained at around 2,000 a day, according to the
International Organization for Migration. Three EU commissioners
traveled to Turkey on Sunday to renew pressure on Ankara to stick
to its part of deal. But their leverage is modest after Italy last
week blocked the final green light on where the EUR3 billion should
come from, as it seeks to get more money from the EU budget.
Another EU initiative, a program to redistribute asylum seekers
more evenly across the bloc has also failed so far: Only 331
refugees have been moved from Italy and Greece to other EU
countries, out of the 160,000 that should be redistributed over two
Senior EU officials in the past few days have warned that
border-free travel may be abolished across the bloc if the bloc
doesn't manage to get a grip on the migration crisis. Dutch Prime
Minister Mark Rutte spoke of six to eight weeks before the bloc
will have to start thinking about a plan B. European Commission
President Jean-Claude Juncker warned of catastrophic consequences
for the European economy and even questioned the rationale for the
common currency, the euro, if borders were to be put up again
between European countries.
Write to Valentina Pop at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 24, 2016 06:15 ET (11:15 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.