Greece given three months to avoid Schengen suspension

Athens has ‘seriously neglected its obligations’ over border controls and migration, says European Commission

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Nissos Rodos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Nissos Rodos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis


Greece has been given three months to avoid being suspended from Europe’s free-travel Schengen area because of its alleged failures to get a grip on the continent’s mass migration crisis. The European Commission said on Wednesday that Athens was failing to observe its obligations under the rules governing Europe’s 26-country passport-free travel area, known as Schengen. “

Greece is under pressure,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, a commission vice-president. “Greece seriously neglected its obligations. There are serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control that must be overcome.

“Greece has been the main gateway to Europe via Turkey for more than a million people over the past year, the majority of them from the Middle East. The influx shows little sign of letting up, with more than 35,000 having made the short but hazardous crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands this month alone.

The Germans, as well as several other EU countries taking in large numbers of migrants, have long been furious with the Greeks for allegedly simply waving the new arrivals through without registration and ID checks and setting them on the Balkan route towards Austria and Germany. EU governments made clear on Monday that there would need to be unprecedented action against Greece if it failed to start playing by the Schengen rules.

Wednesday’s warning from the commission confirmed that. Dombrovskis said that a secret EU mission to Greece in November had concluded that Athens was avoiding the Schengen rules on several fronts.

“There is no effective identification and registration of irregular migrants,” said Dombrovskis. “Fingerprints are not being entered systematically into the system, travel documents are not being systematically checked for authenticity or against crucial security databases.”

The unprecedented move to sanction Greece is being combined with national governments acting to extend and prolong national border controls for up to two years, dealing a potentially terminal blow to the Schengen regime which has been in effect for more than 20 years and is generally viewed as one of the EU’s biggest and most popular achievements.

The refugee crisis coupled with jihadist terrorism in Europe have put the system under its greatest stress and could yet bring down EU governments.

On the frontline of the migration flows - 850,000 migrants traversed Greece last year - Athens is furious at being scapegoated by the rest of the EU and fears the impact of being quarantined.

The Greek foreign ministry released statistics on Wednesday showing that 90% of the new arrivals last year were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, most of whom would routinely qualify for refugee status. By contrast, the commission said this week that 60% of those entering the EU currently were “economic migrants” who were not fleeing war, were not in need of protection and should be deported.

The warning from the commission came in the form of a draft report on Greece’s performance which still has to be endorsed by a qualified majority of EU governments. The commission would then give Athens three months to take “remedial action” to safeguard its place in the Schengen system.

At the same time EU governments, with the commission’s support, are acting to increase border controls at Macedonia’s border with northern Greece, moves that could see tens of thousands of refugees being kettled up in Greece.

Under rulings from the European court of human rights, EU countries are not allowed to return asylum-seekers to Greece because the conditions for refugees there are deemed to be too wretched. But stopping them crossing into Macedonia before heading further north would cancel out the need for returning them to Greece.

Guardian service