Greece hit back yesterday (2 December) at threats from some EU states to suspend it from the Schengen zone of open border travel because of its failure to prevent large numbers of refugees from entering Europe.
Some central European officials, most prominently Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, have suggested excluding Greece from Schengen. Diplomats and European Union officials say some governments have raised the possibility informally but it would be a largely symbolic move, with little impact on migration.
“It is not said officially, but there is pressure,” Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters, denying reports on Wednesday that Athens had, among other things, refused an EU offer of devices designed to share the identity data of incoming refugees around the bloc.
“These are very common lies for Greece … This blame game towards our country is unfair,” he said.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, responding to a Financial Times report that he had conveyed a suspension warning on a visit to Athens this week, said he delivered no ultimatum but had urged Greece to cooperate with EU agencies in order to dispel talk of excluding it from Schengen.
“We have to make sure that people aren’t talking in Brussels about … pushing Greece out of Schengen,” Asselborn told Reuters. “That’s something we must avoid at all costs.”
“We are working to maintain Schengen and make it work properly,” an EU official said. “The moment of truth will be the December European Council,” the official said, referring to the next meeting of EU leaders in Brussels in two weeks’ time.
Clashes erupted on the Greek-Macedonian border on Tuesday (1 December) when Macedonian riot police fired tear gas to repel up to 1,000 mostly Pakistani migrants trying to force their way across a newly erected border fence, a Reuters witness said. One Macedonian officer fired warning shots in the air.
Refugees later blocked the crossing for Syrians and others who would be let in as asylum seekers. “If we don’t cross, no one does!” they chanted. Police stood guard. Buses full of people who have landed elsewhere in Greece kept arriving.
Frustration has risen in recent weeks in the European Commission, the EU executive charged with ramping up controls on the external borders, and among EU governments that Greece is failing to make use of available EU funds and personnel to ensure people arriving in the Schengen area are documented.
With no land borders with the rest of the 26-nation Schengen area, Greece has allowed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Syrian refugees, to travel from its islands off the Turkish coast across Greece to the northern border with non-EU Macedonia as they head for Germany.
Mouzalas said that as long as Turkey did not shut down people smugglers operating on its coastline, Athens could not stop frail boats packed with refugees from landing on Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. He said he had taken EU ambassadors out to sea to watch arrivals and asked what Athens should do.
“They don’t dare to ask us ‘drown them’, but if you do push-back on a plastic boat in the middle of the sea with 50 or 70 refugees aboard, you’re asking me to drown them,” the minister said.
‘Tool’ to push Greece
EU diplomats said suspending Greece from the open-border rules – activating Article 26 of the Schengen treaty so that people arriving at ports and airports from Greece were treated as coming from outside the Schengen zone – could be discussed at a meeting of EU interior ministers on Friday (4 December).
However, some also said that Greece appeared to be moving now to implement EU measures to control refugees and so a common front against Athens was unlikely as early as this week.
“It’s a tool for pushing Greece to accept EU help,” one senior diplomat said. Since refugees have rarely used airlines or international ferries, the main impact of other Schengen states imposing passport checks on arrivals from Greece would be on Greeks and tourists who are vital to the Greek economy.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters: “It was said because of (Greece’s) reluctance to protect the border. But now the latest signals are coming that they are taking these measures finally.”
EU officials accept Greek criticism that other states have failed to organise facilities to take in refugees but say Athens, despite the economic problems that saw it nearly drop out of the euro zone this year, could do more.
Mouzalas said Greece had spent €1 billion in additional unbudgeted funds from its strained budget this year on coping with the refugee influx, and had received a mere €30 million so far in EU assistance due to bureaucracy on both sides.
He welcomed EU border agency Frontex assistance to register refugees but said that under Greek law, only Greek forces could patrol its border.