27th Feb 2020

EU probes Greek border gaps, in Schengen threat

  • Over one million fled to the EU to seek international protection this year. (Photo: IFRC)

The European Commission is compiling a report on Greece that could see internal border controls increased from the six month limit to up to two years.

The move follows border tensions after some 800,000 people crossed into Greece since the start of the year and headed towards the mainland EU to seek international protection.

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Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Sweden and Norway all reintroduced the checks in response.

Some, like Hungary and Slovenia, also opted for barbed wire fences along their respective borders.

France, for its part, set up checks following the Paris attacks in November.

But some of those checks and fences have roused broader fears that the passport-free Schengen area is at the risk of collapse.

Germany imposed a ten day control at its Austrian border at the start of September after having announced an open door policy for all Syrian nationals.

Berlin then extended it to 20 days and then again for another 20 days. It now wants to maintain the controls but is restricted by a six-month limit.

New evaluation report

The six-month limit can be lifted but only after EU institutional procedures and evaluations determine the gaps on the Greek frontiers somehow pose a major threat to Schengen.

All eyes are now on Greece which, for its part, denies it has failed to properly seal its own borders.

EU officials in November went to the Greek land border with Turkey in an unannounced visit. They also went to the Greek islands of Chios and Samos.

Neither island has a so-called hotspot, areas where arriving refugees are screened and identified, up and running. The problem is due, in part, to other member states having failed to offer up the required experts needed to man the arrival zones.

But on Tuesday (22 December), a commission official told MEPs in the civil liberties committee that the November spot checks will form the basis of a new evaluation report.

"Recently an unannounced visit to Greece took place on the land borders with Turkey and on the sea borders. That report is under preparation and will be submitted to [...] the Schengen Evaluation committee, for adoption hopefully very soon", he said.

If adopted, the report might impact on further decisions by the commission to use a specific clause in the Schengen borders code.

The clause allows the commission to recommend the reintroduction of border controls at the internal borders if there "are serious deficiencies" on how Greece manages its outer frontiers.

Should Greece not respond and if the Schengen area remains wobbly, then member states would be able to extend their internal checks from the maximum of six months to up to two years.

'Our country can’t handle it'

Immediate controls can currently be imposed for two months if there is "a serious threat to the internal security and public policy". If the event is foreseen, the limit is set to six months.

Greece maintains it is meeting international obligations with rescue operations.

The country, wrecked in part by the financial crisis and by austerity measures imposed by international creditors, says it has spent some €1 billion from its national budget to better manage the refugee inflows.

“Our country can’t handle it, our economy can’t handle it", said Greece's citizens’ protection minister, Nikos Toskas, earlier this month.

On Tuesday, the death toll of people dying while trying to reach Greece increased by 11. Three of them were children. All had set off from Turkey when their boat sank en route to Samos.

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