Brussels came a step closer to sealing off Greece from the Schengen free travel zone today as a report found “serious deficiencies” in the country’s border.
Athens has three months to start finger printing and registering migrants passing through its islands on the way to western Europe, the European Commission said. If not, it will activate emergency powers that allow internal border checks to be imposed throughout the continent for two years, an effective suspension of the cherished Schengen zone.
Surprise inspections by expert teams in Greece, including on its Aegean islands near the coast of Turkey, found that Greek authorities were failing to properly register and fingerprint people or correctly check their travel papers.
The verdict of “serious deficiencies” in Greece’s external border opens the door to activating Article 26, an emergency clause that allows border controls to be imposed for two years.
Germany and five other states have already imposed border controls under a six-month rule, which expires in May.
EU nations would have to vote in favor of the move by around a two-thirds majority, and Greece alone could not stop them.
“Schengen is one of the most formidable achievements of the European Union and it must be protected,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the Commission Vice President, said.
“Greece will then have three months to implement remedial actions. If necessary remedial actions are not being taken there is a possibility … which would allow member states to temporarily close their borders.”
Under a separate plan backed by the Commission, police from across Europe will be deployed along Greece’s northern border with Macedonia as a “second line of defence” to repel migrants.
Northern countries suspect Greece has simply waved through migrants, in a violation of EU asylum rules, in order to prevent becoming a vast refugee camp.
“I am uneasy because there is an effort to create an atmosphere against Greece,” Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said. But he conceded: “It’s a bad report for us and it documents something that is true.”
“Our commitment now is to be ready by mid-to-late February,” he said.
Figures yesterday showed more migrants have travelled from Turkey to Greece each day this year than the whole of January 2015.
Figures released by the International Organisation for Migration show that more than 45,000 people – an average of 1,730 a day – have made the perilous journey so far this month, despite the harsh winter weather and dangerous conditions.
Just 1,472 arrivals were recorded by the Greek coastguard in the whole of January 2015.
It throws doubt on the effectiveness of a €3 billion refugee deal struck between the EU and Ankara last November to halt the flows.