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 migration crisis.

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 Macedonia.

Greece did step up registration and EU patrols were deployed, but to some EU governments, notably Austria, the efforts are still insufficient.

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 Schengen area."

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 in Greece.

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 years.

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


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 24, 2016 06:15 ET (11:15 GMT)

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