- EU weighs year-end target for lifting internal border checks
- Focal point Greece is shown both carrots and sticks in plan
German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited progress in driving down the influx of refugees into Europe as leaders in Brussels put forward a plan aimed at overcoming the region’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
With milder weather in the Aegean Sea presaging a pickup of migrants crossing to Greece from Turkey, Merkel said negotiations with the government in Ankara had already yielded results ahead of a meeting in Brussels Monday between the European Union’s 28 leaders and the Turkish government.
“The refugee numbers are still very high, but I want to be clear that in comparison with October and November they’re down significantly,” Merkel told reporters in Paris after meeting with French President Francois Hollande. “It’s already spring in the Aegean, so I think we can clearly see a certain change has taken place.”
European leaders are struggling to forge any semblance of unity as governments impose a patchwork of unilateral border controls in an effort to stem the flow of migrants fleeing war and poverty, the majority of whom cross to Greece from Turkey. More than 135,000 asylum seekers have made their way into Europe so far this year, the vast majority over the Aegean, compared with some 376,000 last October and November, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is seeking to establish a degree of policy coherence with a proposal announced on Friday to lift internal border border checks and restore passport-free travel by the end of the year. The measures offer hope to Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees have been stranded this month, that it won’t become a longer-term way station for Mideast migrants while keeping pressure on the country to register them.
EU countries that have reintroduced passport controls in the so-called Schengen zone of borderless travel would be allowed to prolong those until December, a limit that would stop short of a possible two-year extension. With the end of winter threatening to herald a bigger influx of asylum seekers, the commission wants to prevent EU governments from further curtailing the free movement of people in Europe with more go-it-alone actions.
“We are at a critical moment,” EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Brussels on Friday. The goal, he said, should be “to move from unilateral decisions on the reintroduction of border controls toward a coordinated approach and to lift all internal border controls by the end of this year.”
Merkel said EU member states are “a little bit closer” to a bloc-wide approach. “We still need a bit of time to complete it,” she said later Friday at a state election campaign rally in Ettlingen, Germany.
The German leader is spearheading talks with Turkey to help slow the influx from outside the bloc. She’s meanwhile defended her open-border approach at home as EU member states have lined up to block the entry of people fleeing the Syrian civil war and instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re convinced that unilateral actions do not help us, because we’re seeing that it doesn’t cause a sustainable reduction in the number of refugees,” the German chancellor said in Paris.
After a six-year battle to prevent the debt crisis from breaking up the euro area, Europe is scrambling to get a grip on asylum seekers who threaten to shatter the region’s other main symbol of integration. The refugee wave buffeting the Schengen zone has shifted political alliances in Europe, with Germany and Greece coming together to warn against internal-EU border closures after repeatedly clashing with each other over policies needed to restore fiscal health.
The scenario outlined by the commission entails an implicit warning to Greece: if it doesn’t do a better job registering asylum seekers from such war-torn zones as Syria and sending back ineligible arrivals, the internal EU border checks along the migratory route further north could be prolonged for up to two years.
“We have to address serious deficiencies at our external borders,” Avramopoulos said. “We are working very closely with the Greek authorities to help them address these challenges comprehensively because we cannot have free movement internally if we cannot manage our external borders effectively.”
In a sign of how deep the refugee-wave impact already is on the EU, the commission two days ago sought 700 million euros ($772 million) in emergency aid from the bloc’s budget to help Greece and other countries along the migratory route tackle the humanitarian consequences. The three-year plan would mark the first time that EU emergency aid would be used within the 28-nation bloc.
Hanging over Europe’s struggle is the role of non-EU member Turkey, which has been offered 3 billion euros by the EU to help control migrants.
Merkel on Friday also pointed to progress on the Turkish side, including imposing additional visa restrictions, issuing work visas for migrants, increased police cooperation with the EU and accepting some migrants repatriated back from Europe.