EU warns Greece could be sealed off from Schengen zone over its handling of refugee crisis

Refugees arrive aboard the passenger ferry Nissos Rodos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, January 27, 2016. © Alkis Konstantinidis
The European Commission has accused Greece of “seriously neglecting” its obligations under the Schengen Code by failing to maintain proper border controls. It warned that Greece could be sealed off from the rest of Schengen zone as a result.

Athens “is seriously neglecting its obligations and there are serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border controls that must be overcome and dealt with by the Greek authorities,” according to a Schengen Evaluation draft report, which was discussed by the Commission on Wednesday.

The report is expected to be adopted by the EU Commission, which would then recommend that Greece take specific measures to remedy the situation. Greece will then have three months to correct the deficiencies and comply with the Schengen rules.

Should it fail to meet the deadline, it could face the deployment of European border guard teams on its borders or even be suspended from the Schengen free travel area, with the Commission recommending that “one or more Member States reintroduce border controls at all or at specific parts of their internal borders,” the press release says.

“If the necessary action is not being taken and deficiencies persist, there is a possibility to ... allow member states to temporarily close their borders,” the Commission’s Vice President, Valdis Dombrovskis, said during a news briefing.

Athens rejected the criticism, saying that the Schengen Evaluation visits were conducted at a time when the situation differed greatly from the current one, the Guardian reports.

“Greece has surpassed itself in order to keep its obligations,” government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili told the paper.

Greek authorities also accused Turkey of not fulfilling its part of the deal, which was struck between the Turkish government and the EU in November of 2015. According to Athens, Turkey has failed to clamp down on people smugglers and curb the refugee inflow.

At the same time, the report admits that Greek authorities are under pressure and stresses that Greece “can be assisted in fulfilling the recommendations via practical and/or financial measures from the Commission, Frontex or other EU bodies.”

In the meantime, Greek migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas said that his country is seeking help from the EU to swiftly deport refugees who are denied asylum. According to the minister, EU-supervised screening centers established on the Greek islands could be used to send such refugees back “the next morning,” Sky News reports.

Mouzalas stressed earlier that his country is doing everything possible to ensure better control over its border with Turkey and accused other EU countries of not sending enough help and not fulfilling their promises, stressing that only 800 agents from Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, had been dispatched to Greece, while the EU had promised to send 1800.

In interview with Die Zeit last week, Mouzalas said that the Greek border is “perfectly protected” and stressed that threatening to suspend his country from the Schengen area was “absolutely senseless,” adding that “[European] politicians resort to the populist accusations only to appease their own voters.”

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner has accused Greece of not fulfilling its obligations to the EU in terms of securing the bloc’s external borders and suggested that the country should be excluded from the Schengen zone for the time being.

At the same time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called for the creation of a fence along Greece’s borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria to curb the influx of refugees.

On January 20, Macedonia closed its border with Greece to refugees and migrants, calling it a temporary measure.

More than one million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa arrived in the European Union last year, most of whom came to the EU via Greece and Turkey.