Commission plans last-gasp attempt to save Schengen

The Commission's new plan, intended to be fully functional by November, hopes to save one of the fundamental pillars of the union. [Freedom House/Flickr]

The European Union will unveil on Friday (4 March) a “roadmap” to restore by November the Schengen passport-free travel area, which is nearing collapse because of the migration crisis, sources said.

The plan, a draft of which has been seen by AFP, includes quickly creating an EU coast guard system and strengthening Greece’s external border, the main point of entry for refugees and migrants to Europe.

After nearly two decades of European free travel, the 26-country Schengen area is tottering as several member states unilaterally reintroduce border controls to stop migrants passing from Greece to richer northern European countries.

“We will adopt tomorrow a roadmap on how to restore a fully functioning Schengen system,” a source in the European Commission told AFP.

With Europe facing its biggest migration crisis since World War II, the Commission’s plan says that restoring the Schengen area is “of paramount importance for the European Union as a whole”.

If all fails and border controls have to be reintroduced, “it would put an end to a central pillar of the EU unification process,” it said.

It warns that the economic cost of a Schengen collapse over 10 years could be €1.4 trillion. More than 1.13 million migrants have arrived in Europe since the start of 2015, with most landing in Greece from Turkey and then travelling up through the Balkans to reach Germany and Sweden.

But a domino effect of border closures has left thousands of migrants trapped in Greece and sparked a diplomatic clash with Austria, the latest country to impose curbs. EU Council President Donald Tusk, who is this week touring the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, said on Wednesday (2 March) that restoring Schengen was a “pre-condition” for reaching a solution to the migrant crisis.

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The plan, which comes ahead of a crucial summit on Monday (7 March) between the EU and Turkey, sets out a timetable for Greece to fix “serious deficiencies” in control of its external border.

The plan gives 12 May as the deadline for Greece to act, if it fails, then Brussels could theoretically allow border controls within the Schengen area for up to two years, instead of the normal six months.

The Commission plan also calls for member states to stop the “wave through” of migrants to other countries and instead abide by EU rules which say they must assess asylum claims themselves.

An EU border and coast guard system that European leaders have agreed to create should be operational by September at the latest and fully functioning by November, the draft plan says.

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Finally, it calls for an end to the unilateral reintroduction of border checks and instead a “coordinated” system of temporary border checks. It said the aim was “to subsequently lift all internal border controls as quickly as possible and by November 2016 at the latest”.

The prime ministers of Turkey and Greece are to meet next Tuesday in the Aegean port city of Izmir to discuss ways to enhance their cooperation as both countries are grappling with an influx of migrants, an official statement said.

Accompanied by ministers, Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoğlu and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras will chair a high-level strategic council, a mechanism to boost their cooperation, and also address a Turkish-Greek business forum, according to the statement released from Davutoğlu’s office today (3 March).

The location of the meeting is hugely symbolic. Izmir, known to Greeks as Smyrna, was a major Hellenic centre and had a large Greek population under the Ottoman Empire that was evacuated from the city ahead of the establishment of the modern Turkish state.

Long-time rivals Greece and Turkey are in talks to finalise an unprecedented NATO mission to tackle migrant smugglers in the Aegean Sea. The NATO force will conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance to provide information to Greece, Turkey and the EU’s border agency Frontex so that they, not the alliance, can deal with the traffickers.

Turkey on Wednesday denied claims that it was blocking NATO vessels deployed in the Aegean Sea, saying it was the mastermind of the proposal.

The two neighbours are at loggerheads over Aegean airspace and territorial waters, which have held up agreement on the operational details. The EU agreed an action plan in November with Turkey to halt the flow but the numbers have fallen only slightly and are expected to increase again in the summer, fuelling sharp divisions within the bloc over what to do next.

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To the west of the bloc, in Calais, a group of Iranian migrants sewed their mouths shut in a disturbing protest at the ongoing demolition of the “Jungle” migrant camp in the French port city. One of the nine protesters carried a sign that read “Will you listen now?”.

In a statement, Calais town hall said the unsettling protest had aroused “deep emotions”, but “at the same time, nothing justifies such extremes when the state has done everything to take the migrants out of these undignified conditions,” it said.

France has offered the evicted migrants places in heated containers next to the Jungle, or in one of 100 accommodation centres around the country. But many are reluctant to give up their dream of smuggling themselves across the Channel to England, where they have family or community ties, or see greater hope of finding work and education.

French authorities began demolishing the southern half of the camp on Monday (29 February) and by Thursday they were still razing makeshift shelters under heavy police protection, drawing ever closer to one of the main food distribution centres, which serves around 1,000 meals a day.

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