EU Weighs Year-End Target for Lifting Internal Border Checks

  • European Commission publishes refugee-policy roadmap
  • Focal point Greece is shown both carrots and sticks in plan

The European Commission proposed an end-of-year target date for lifting internal border checks in Europe, offering Greece hope it won’t become a longer-term way station for Mideast migrants while keeping pressure on the country to register them.

The commission, the European Union’s executive arm, is seeking to establish a degree of policy coherence after the continent’s biggest refugee wave since the Second World War provoked political fights among EU governments.

EU countries that have reintroduced passport controls in the so-called Schengen zone 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.”

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 threatening the Schengen passport-free 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.

Migrant Challenge

More preoccupied these days with humanitarian crises than financial fires, EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels again on March 7 to grapple with the migrant challenge. More than 120,000 refugees crossed into Greece in the first two months of the year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, with the government in Athens estimating about 25,000 stranded in the country.

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. Under the rules, that would be through four six-month periods.

“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.”

The commission has already begun special surveillance of Greece’s work on refugees. On Feb. 24, it approved a second set of special recommendations for Athens that marked the penultimate step before so-called Article 26 measures, which would allow the prolongation of internal EU border checks for up to two years. Extending the current controls only to December would also require action under Article 26 of the Schengen rules.

‘Without Delay’

In a statement, the commission said that “it will be prepared for this eventuality and would act without delay, proposing border controls only at sections of the border where they are necessary and proportionate.”

At the same time, Greece’s EU partners have an interest in refraining from the re-imposition of internal checks because such measures have an economic cost, according to the commission. It projected that the full reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen area would have direct costs of as much as 18 billion euros ($20 billion) a year, or 0.13 percent of EU gross domestic product.

“Controls at internal borders should remain exceptional,” the commission said.

Hanging over Europe’s struggle is the role of non-EU member Turkey, the departure point of most refugees landing in Greece. Turkey, which will also take part in the Brussels talks on Monday, has been offered 3 billion euros by the EU to help control migrants.

“The summit on Monday with Turkey will be decisive,” Avramopoulos said. “Concrete steps need to be taken to stem the flows from Turkey.”

In a sign of how deep the refugee-wave impact already is on the EU, the commission two days ago sought 700 million euros 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

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