AMSTERDAM: Greece faced new pressure on Monday to bolster the EU’s main external border as interior ministers met to tackle the migrant crisis and save the Schengen passport-free zone from collapse.
Austria and Germany urged Athens to do more to staunch the flow across the sea border with Turkey, the main route for people entering Europe in the continent’s biggest crisis of its kind since World War II.
“Greece has to reinforce its (border) resources and accept help,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters as she arrived for talks with her EU counterparts in Amsterdam.
The Austrian, who last week warned Athens could face “temporary exclusion” from Schengen, said it was a “myth” that the border could not be secured and that Greece had “one of the biggest navies in Europe.”
“If we do not manage to secure Europe’s external border, this is the Greek-Turkish border, the European external border will move towards central Europe,” Mikl-Leitner said.
One million migrants and refugees came to Europe last year, around half of them people fleeing the war in Syria, and more than 3,000 people died making the perilous sea crossing.
– Schengen fears –
Austria, Germany and several other Schengen member states have already reintroduced temporary checks at their internal borders, raising fears the 26-country zone that is symbolic of European unity and prosperity could collapse.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere urged Greece — which last year threw the EU into crisis by nearly crashing out of the single currency due to its debts — to “do its duty.”
Germany took in one million asylum seekers last year but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open its doors was blamed by many transit countries for opening up the flow of migrants.
“We want to save Schengen, we want common European solutions, but the clock is ticking,” said de Maiziere, adding that the key to solving the crisis was a deal with Turkey to staunch the flow of migrants.
The accord signed last year involves the EU paying Turkey three billion euros ($3.2 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees and speeding up its EU membership process, in return for Turkey tackling people smugglers and improving conditions for refugees.
The payment has been held up by concerns that Turkey is not complying, but EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said during a visit to Ankara on Monday that she was confident Turkey would get the three billion “in reasonable time”.
– Counterterrorism centre –
The two-day meeting of interior and justice ministers is the first under the six-month Dutch EU presidency that aims to broker a deal by June 30 on setting up a new pan-European border and coastguard force.
But some countries like Greece have said they want to make sure such a force does not infringe on their sovereignty.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former Greek foreign minister, said no plan to suspend Greece from Schengen had been proposed.
But he added: “It is obvious that frontline member states must work more and here we are to support them to better do their job.”
As EU ministers arrived for the talks by boat via one of Amsterdam’s famous canals, Amnesty International sent a boat filled with mannequins representing refugees who had sailed on the vessel from Egypt to Italy last year.
“Leaders of Europe it is not the polls you should worry about, it is the history books,” read a message on a dinghy accompanying the boat.
The ministers also aim to tackle terrorism, which has remained top of the agenda since the November 13 Paris attacks that left 130 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
The meeting in Amsterdam coincides with the formal launch of the new counter-terrorism centre at Europol headquarters in The Hague, which is designed to improve intelligence-sharing among often wary EU member states.