18th Mar 2018

Greece demands open border pledge at EU summit

Greece wants a UK deal to keep it within the Union linked to demands on maintaining open internal borders, according to a Greek government contact.

The move follows on-going talks at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday (19 February) where the 28 leaders are attempting to seal an agreement on keeping Britain within the bloc.

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An EU source said the issue has not come up in any of the meetings between EU state heads and EU council chief Donald Tusk and EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

"That has not been a part of our talks," he said.

A second EU source said any threat by Greece to not agree on a final EU summit conclusion is a "rumour planted by Athens."

But a third EU source said "political work is ongoing to avoid non-coordinated closing of borders."

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on Friday held discussions with the Germans and French on migration and its bailout programmes.

The Greek government source told EUobserver Tsipras wants guarantees that migrants and asylum seekers will be able transit to across member states within the final summit agreement.

"Guarantees are needed to keep borders open," noted the contact.

He said Germany agreed to not close its borders until the next EU summit with Turkey in early March.

He also said guarantees are needed to make sure the scheme to relocate some 160,000 people from Italy and Greece to other EU states continues. The scheme, agreed last September, has floundered with EU states only taking in some 500 of the total so far.

Border clamp downs are instead becoming more common with the EU threatening to extend controls within the passport-free Schengen zone to up to two years.

An asylum cap, imposed by Austria earlier this week, risk sparking knock-on effects on other EU states further south and along the Balkan route from Greece. Vienna will allow only 80 asylum applicants and some 3,200 to cross into its territory per day.

"I am very happy with our decision and we will stick to it," said Austria's interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, reports Reuters.

Over one million people sought international protection in the EU last year. Many more are projected to arrive in 2016 as the war in Syria rages on and as refugees stuck in overcrowded camps in Jordan and Lebanon turn to smugglers.

The crisis in the region continues to largely play out on the shores of the Greek Aegean islands, with an average of two child drownings per day, according to the International Organization for Migration, the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF.

The UNHCR said some 4,600 people arrived on the Greek Aegean islands on Thursday alone.

The Tsipras threat underlines broader tensions on migration that risked overshadowing a summit formally dedicated to sorting Britain's awkward relations with the rest of the EU.

Both issues are posing existential questions on the future of a European Union that is struggling with some of its largest challenges since the euro-crisis.

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