EU interior ministers will discuss a proposal on Friday (4 December) that could allow new border controls between European states for up to two years as an unprecedented migration crisis strains the Schengen free-travel zone.
The possibility is part of a discussion paper prepared by the Luxembourg government, which will chair Friday’s ministerial meeting, in response to concerns over the integrity of the 26-nation Schengen area under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of people trying to reach prosperous EU countries.
Most enter Europe through Greece. Some EU governments, notably in Eastern Europe, have suggested Greece could be suspended from the Schengen area if it fails to do more to control immigration.
A Luxembourg spokeswoman stressed the proposals were “not a threat to anyone or a threat to throw anyone out” but rather an overview of possible amendments to procedure and a suggestion of what to do when, come March, existing controls first reimposed by some states in September will expire.
Luxembourg, whose own minister Jean Asselborn spoke out on Wednesday against expelling Greece or paring back the Schengen area to a hard core of richer states, proposed four topics for debate, according to a document seen by Reuters.
- Improving communication among states before imposing temporary controls on their internal Schengen frontiers,
- Securing external borders,
- Improved checks to track unregistered migrants inside Schengen,
- Longer term internal border control.
The checks imposed by Germany and some other states on their Schengen borders in September are limited to six months. The Luxembourg paper suggests that, if migration problems persist, governments may use Article 26 of the Schengen rules, allowing up to four six-month periods of border control.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission, the executive which oversees implementation of the rules, told reporters: “This is not about expelling anyone. It concerns serious and persistent deficiencies at the external borders.”
Visegrad 4 reject smaller Schengen
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland rejected on Thursday the idea of limiting the European Union’s visa-free area to a smaller number of countries and will invite other EU members to help them fight for its survival.
Prime ministers of the Visegrad 4 group of countries said they agreed at a meeting in Prague to set up a “Friends of Schengen” initiative to keep borders open, a key achievement of their post-communist integration into western Europe.
The influx of refugees fleeing war in Syria and elswhere has led the Dutch government to discuss internally and with some of its allies a plan to introduce passport checks at the borders of several Western European countries, in effect creating a reduced passport-free area.
Those calls must be rejected, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told a news conference.
“The aim … should be to stress our common interest in protecting the external Schengen border and stress our common aim to maintain the Schengen area,” he told reporters after the Visegrad 4 meeting.
“We have rejected attempts to create some kinds of mini-Schengens within the EU.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he believed there would be countries that could join the initiative, but it remained every state’s duty to protect its outside border.
“Every country should … assume responsibility for the protection of their external borders and others should help them in this. But this should remain a national responsibility.”
Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, through which many refugees have travelled to Germany but where very few want to settle, have stood out in their opposition to the EU decision to impose compulsory quotas for redistributing asylum-seekers across the EU, straining relations with their western partners.
This has led some western politicians to call for cuts in aid given to those countries under the EU’s development programmes. The Visegrad countries demanded on Thursday that the EU funds are not connected with the debate on migration.
Since mid-September, Germany has taken advantage of exceptions in the Schengen agreement in order to reintroduce border controls temporarily.
Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière said the EU borderless Schengen agreement may be in danger over the migrant crisis. He explained that the freedom of movement in the EU was threatened by countries failing to adhere to the principle that responsibility for processing claims lies with the country that played the biggest part in the applicant's entry to the EU.
"If nobody sticks to the law, then Schengen is in danger, that's why we urgently need European solutions," he said.
Earlier this month, EU Council Presidency holder Luxembourg warned that Europeans have "only a few months" to save the Schengen system.