EPP leader floats Schengen suspensions

Joseph Daul [EPP Group / Flick]

Member states that do not tackle immigration should be temporarily suspended from the Schengen area, the President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Joseph Daul, told EURACTIV.

Daul reproached Greece for not registering incoming refugees from Turkey, and only setting up one out of five planned hotspots on its islands.

The escalation of the refugee crisis has provoked tensions among EU member states, highlighting the different approaches to the issue by center-right and center-left politicians.

EPP officials tend to take a hard line, while socialists prefer a more moderate approach.

In an interview with Die Welt on Saturday (23 January) Austria’s Minister of the Interior, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, threatened Greece with suspension from Schengen if it fails to slow the flow of refugees.

“If the government in Athens does not finally do more to secure the outer borders, then we will have to openly discuss a temporary expulsion of Greece from the Schengen area,” the center-right politician [affiliated to EPP] said.

“It is a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be controlled,” she added.

Her fierce remarks prompted the reaction of Germany’s center-left Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), who slammed Vienna for the warning, claiming that it was a “pseudo-solution”.

“There won’t be any solution to the refugee crisis if solidarity disappears,” he said.

“On the contrary, we must work together and concentrate all our efforts to fight against the causes that are pushing the refugees into flight, to reinforce the EU’s outer borders and to achieve a fair redistribution [of asylum seekers] within Europe.”

The Vice President of the Social Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament, Knut Fleckenstein, expressed the same position.

“We need hotspots in order to register the refugees and we also need a quota for redistributing the refugees among the EU member states. That way we allow for a better control of the EU’s external border and for a fairer burden sharing. Both tasks need to work,” the German lawmaker told EURACTIV.

EPP warns Athens

“We must focus on implementing the existing legislation such as the first and second European Agenda on Migration which tackle pressing issues: a rapid asylum procedure, a functioning return mechanism, and better reception conditions for asylum seekers,” Daul said.

“The member states have a key responsibility to put into practice the existing legislation. The countries which do not fulfill their duties should be temporarily suspended from the Schengen area,” he noted, sending a strong message to the Syriza-led government.

Daul also called for a complete reform of the European Asylum System, and asylum requests to be processed “at the EU’s external borders or preferably outside the EU”.

He stressed that such a plan would allow the EU to help people fleeing conflict zones, while swiftly returning those who do not qualify for protection.

“I am also convinced that we need a contingency plan for refugees arriving in the EU according to the Geneva Convention,” Daul stated.

The EPP chief added that member states should strike a balance between an obligation to help those in need on the one hand, and the duty to preserve the EU’s “capacity to cope on the other hand- and that capacity is not unlimited – as well as ensuring the safety of the European people”.

Moreover, according to Daul, the EPP proposes the creation of “safe zones” in third countries, so that aid and assistance “can be provided as close as possible to, or even in, the countries of origin”.

Greece set to isolation

On 22 January, the Financial Times reported that EU leaders were preparing a plan to stop the influx of asylum-seekers by blocking their passage into Macedonia.

The report triggered strong reactions in Athens, which feared that it would be isolated.

Greece’s junior Interior Minister for Migration, Yiannis Mouzalas, said the FT report contained “falsehoods and distortions”.

In the same line, Greek Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikos Kotzias, noted that the German side had never raised such an issue, and emphasied that Greece’s objective was “to prevent any wrong thoughts to be translated into policy recommendations”.

“Such plans have not realized how the Schengen zone works and what its significance is,” he added.

“There is absolutely not such a plan,” EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said on Sunday (24 January).

“We don’t agree with the reports referring to Schengen and suspensions,” he noted, adding that the refugee crisis will not “re-open the Grexit discussion”.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, also said on 22 January, that Bulgaria and FYROM should erect a fence along their border with Greece.

>>Read: Mini-Schengen not an option, for now

So far, Bulgaria has built a fence at its border with Turkey. No fence with Greece has ever been planned, as the Greek-Bulgarian border is seen as a future internal Schengen border.

A source told EURACTIV that in a meeting with fellow premiers several months ago, Orbán asked what they wanted him to do: either to defend the external EU border, which he is obliged to do according to the Schengen treaty, or let all the migrants pass through Hungary and reach their desired destination.

No joint patrols with Ankara

Nikos Kotzias ruled out any possibility of joint patrols with Turkey’s Coast Guard Command.

On the contrary, he said that Frontex should be responsible for the repatriation to Turkey of those immigrants who are not entitled to asylum.

>>Read: Greek minister: New EU border force should assume full control of refugees

“Frontex may facilitate the readmission of those who are not entitled to asylum. There is a readmission agreement, both Greek and European [with Turkey]. We want to develop the [EU] Coast Guard, but we reject the limitation of sovereignty in the name of it,” Kotzias stressed. 

“I really hope to find a common ground for cooperation between Europe and Turkey, to limit the refugee - immigration flows, in order for Greece find not to be at the forefront of an enormous humanitarian problem," the centre-right New Democracy leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, noted today (25 January).

"Unfortunately, what we have seen up to date from Turkey in this field of policy is not encouraging," he added. 

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