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18th Jan 2019

Internal border controls to end in six months, says EU

  • Avramopoulos says it's time to return to a fully-functioning borderless Schengen area. (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

The EU member states imposing border controls to stop migration flows from Greece will have to remove them before the end of year.

EU migration and home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Tuesday (2 May) that Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and non-EU member state Norway will only be allowed to extend existing controls one last time.

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"This is the last prolongation, I repeat it, this is the last prolongation," Avramopoulos told reporters in Brussels.

The controls, first launched in 2015, can no longer be extended under EU rules unless a new reason or threat emerges. Such a process would likely entail a long administrative and technical probe into weaknesses in the external border, similar to the one initially carried out in Greece.

Avramopoulos's statements follows an announcement by Sweden, also on Tuesday, to stop ID controls for people travelling from Denmark.

The current ID checks were due to end on 4 May. They were first introduced in January 2016 to reduce the number of asylum seekers after Sweden saw tens of thousands of refugees arrive every week in the autumn of 2015.

Since then, the number of asylum seekers has dropped to less than 500 a week.

Sweden's interior minister, Anders Ygeman, said there was no longer a need for ID checks, but seemed to suggest greater border controls as a consequence.

"We will make greater use of automatic licence plate recognition and xray vehicle screenings at the borders," he told reporters on Tuesday.

The government wants everyone entering Sweden to be checked this way.

The wider use of surveillance mechanisms seemed in line with EU demands.

Proportionate controls

When asked if Sweden's stronger border controls corresponded with the commission's demands, commissioner Avramopoulos said that controls have to be "proportionate, in line with our recommendations today".

"So, I think it's a very positive development," he added.

Later, he said that Sweden was "a responsible country", acting in the "cooperative spirit that we demand".

Sweden's decision was also welcomed by the Danish prime minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who however failed to mention whether Denmark would scrap its own border checks against Germany.

Austria had also announced plans last week to possibly impose indefinite controls and resort to national measures, if necessary.

In an interview with the German daily Die Welt, Austria's interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, said the country wants to know who enters the country.

"In terms of public order and internal security, I simply need to know who is coming to our country," he told the paper.

But an internal report earlier this year from Austria's ministry of the interior, seen by EUobserver, casts a long shadow over Sobotka's comments.

Lack of data

The Austrian report said that it had "no data on the number of crossings and the number of persons controlled" despite the internal border checks already in place under the EU's watch.

An EU official said Sobotka was yet to raise the issue with the EU commission, but that it may surface when the Council of the EU, the institution that represents member states, endorses the latest and final recommendation to extend the controls.

Despite the lack of data, the EU commission in February still recommended for the council to grant extensions for all five countries for another three months until mid-May.

Tuesday's announcement comes amid another EU commission recommendation to impose more police checks along motorways, in an effort to prevent asylum hopefuls from reaching their preferred destinations.

Avramopoulos said the plan also promotes more cross-border police cooperation, such as joint-police patrols in border areas.

He noted that the beefed up border agency Frontex, rebranded the European Border and Coast Guard agency, means external borders of the Schengen area are also better secured, given it has a pool of some 1,500 guards at its disposal.

Tens of thousands have been trapped in Greece following a Western Balkan border closure early last year, forcing many to resort to smugglers.

An estimated 60,000 still remain in Greece, which is sparking fears that they may attempt to venture further north regardless of the barricades and dangers.

EU seeks new rules on internal border checks

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said EU rules that allow states to impose internal border checks are being reformed, with a proposal set to be announced.

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Germany led the way on protection of human rights this year, but Hungary, Italy, and Poland "undermined the EU's moral standing" on the world stage, a leading NGO said.

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