The EU executive concluded on Wednesday that Greece could face new border controls with other states of the free-travel Schengen zone in May if it does not fix “serious deficiencies” in its management of the area’s external frontier.
“If the necessary action is not being taken and deficiencies persist, there is a possibility to … allow member states to temporarily close their borders,” European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news briefing after the executive accepted a report that Athens had “seriously neglected” its obligations to fellow Schengen states.
The move is part of a process in which the EU aims to give EU governments the option of reinstalling controls on their national borders for up to two years, once short-term measures currently in place expire in May.
Following the arrival of more than a million irregular migrants in the European Union last year, most of them via Turkey into Greece from where they trekked northward to Germany, other EU member states have instituted emergency controls on their internal Schengen borders and have warned that they might effectively suspend Athens from the passport-free travel zone.
In practice, Greece has no land borders with the rest of the Schengen zone, so installing new frontier checks would affect only air and sea ports. Diplomats and officials have described the move to penalize tourism-dependent Greece as a means of raising pressure on Athens to implement EU measures intended to identify and register all those arriving from Turkey.
EU officials carried out an assessment mission to Greece in November, leading to Wednesday’s conclusion that there were “serious deficiencies” in Greek frontier control – a key phrase in allowing other member states to impose longer-term restrictions on travelers arriving from Greece.
Such measures, under the never-before-used Article 26 of the Schengen code, can be taken for up to six months and can be renewed up to three times. EU officials concede that the Schengen rules do not make clear what might happen after that.
Dombrovskis said that the Commission was intent on preserving Schengen, one of the EU’s key achievements, and said Greece had made improvements in its border controls since November. These were not enough, however, and the EU would continue to work to help Athens tighten its procedures.
The next step in the process would be for Schengen member states – 26 countries, most but not all of which are in the EU – to confirm the Commission’s conclusions. That requires a majority vote. The executive would then recommend remedial measures and assess by May whether Athens had complied.
“The draft report concludes that Greece seriously neglected its obligations and that there are serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control that must be overcome … by the Greek authorities,” Dombrovskis said.
“Since November, Greece has started to work toward complying with the Schengen rules but more needs to be done.”