The EU has ten days to curb the number of migrants coming to Europe or else the bloc’s migration system could “completely break down”, Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Thursday (25 February).
7 March is the date of an EU-Turkey summit that will assess the progress of a €3 billion deal signed with Ankara in November to cut the flow of migrants. Thousands have entered the EU by travelling from Turkey to Greek coast.
Speaking at a press conference after a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels, Commissioner Avramopoulos criticised Austria’s decision to place a cap on asylum seekers.
“It is precisely national actions that are hindering a European approach,” the Greek Commissioner said. He added that “we have absolutely no time to lose” in coming up with an effective contingency plan.
“In the next ten days, we need tangible and clear results on the ground. Otherwise there is a risk that the whole system will completely break down,” the Greek Commissioner said.
Talks between European Union interior ministers in Brussels on Thursday (25 February) descended into chaos due to the row over Austria’s decision to call a western Balkans meeting this week without inviting Greece.
Greece responded by recalling its ambassador from Austria “for consultations”, as the migrant crisis strained relations between EU states to breaking point.
The EU’s attempts to forge a unified response to the biggest migration crisis in its history are fraying as individual member states increasingly take matters into their own hands to protect their borders.
The Greek foreign ministry hit out at what it called “19th century” attitudes and said the envoy’s recall was designed to “safeguard friendly relations between the states and peoples of Greece and Austria”.
Athens was already seething over a series of border restrictions implemented by Austria, Macedonia and Serbia along the migrant trail to northern Europe that has caused a bottleneck in Greece, the main entry point to Europe from Turkey.
Greece, still struggling with the fallout from its eurozone debt crisis last year, faces huge pressure to stop “waving through” migrants to the rest of the EU.
Avramopoulos stressed that enforcing quotas for asylum seekers contravened EU and international laws,and warned that “everyone must accept and play by the rules”.
But Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas accused other states of trying to make Athens bear the brunt of the crisis.
“Greece will not accept becoming Europe’s Lebanon, a warehouse of souls, even if this were to be done with major (EU) funding,” Mouzalas told reporters in Brussels.
Lebanon hosts around a quarter of the four million Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries.
In northern Greece, hundreds of migrants and refugees left an accommodation camp to walk to the distant border with Macedonia, days after Skopje slashed the number of people it allows through each day.
“They are mainly youths… they do not want to wait for buses to pick them up… neither the army nor the police can stop them because there is the risk of (violence),” Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris said.
The crisis caused by refugees and migrants from Syria, the Middle East and Africa shows no signs of abating with 100,000 arriving in Europe so far this year on top of one million in 2015.
Earlier Avramopoulos urged ministers to find a solution, warning that the crisis threatened the survival of the more than 60-year-old union.
“Lonely initiatives do not lead anywhere. Now, the unity of the union and human lives are at stake,” said Avramopoulos, who is from Greece.
But Austrian Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner raised the possibility of Greece’s exclusion from the Schengen passport-free travel zone, which is cracking as countries reintroduce border controls.
“If it is really the case that the Greek external border cannot be protected, can it be still a Schengen external border?” she asked.
German Interior Minister Thomas De Maziere warned that Thursday’s meeting was the last chance before Europe had to take more drastic steps, especially given the large numbers still coming via Greece.
“If a solution by 7 March is not possible, there have to be other European and coordinated measures,” he said.
A further row broke out between Paris and Brussels after Belgium decided to impose checks at its border with France to stop people coming from the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais.
“This decision is a strange one, as is its motivation,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
A French judge upheld government plans to bulldoze the southern part of the Calais camp on Thursday, after deciding that they should be moved to the better-equipped northern part, by force if necessary.
Meanwhile, the European Commission questioned Hungary’s decision to hold a referendum on mandatory quotas for refugees, which the bloc’s leaders agreed on last year to deal with the migrant crisis.
“We fail to understand how it would fit into the decision-making progress agreed to by all EU member states under the treaties,” European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told a news briefing.
So far only 598 people have been relocated from frontline states Greece and Italy, out of a planned 160,000.
In a positive development, NATO on Thursday managed to overcome sharp differences between long-time rivals Greece and Turkey to finalise an unprecedented naval mission to tackle migrant smugglers in the Aegean.