European leaders on Wednesday threatened to suspend Greece’s membership of the continent’s free-travel Schengen Area unless it steps up border controls to contain the influx of asylum seekers.
Some 700,000 migrants have entered the European Union through Greece this year alone. Many are refugees from the wars in Iraq and Syria.
European foreign ministers are due to meet on Friday to discuss the migrant crisis.
Patience with Greece is wearing thin. The Balkan nation is accused of dragging its feet in implementing new security measures that are meant to stem the flow of people.
Greece complains it has had little help from other European Union member states to control the external border.
But the Financial Times reports that other countries are vexed by Athens’ refusal to call in a special mission from Frontex, the European border agency; its unwillingness to accept EU humanitarian aid; and its failure to revamp its system for registering refugees.
Greece recently turned down a deployment of Frontex officers to its border with Macedonia, saying their mandate was too broad.
One EU ambassador told the Financial Times this was a “red line” for Germany, the country that has received by far the highest number of migrants. “The Germans are furious and that’s why people are talking about pushing Greece out.”
Slovakia’s Robert Fico earlier said it is “high time” to evict Greece from Schengen, saying, “We cannot tolerate one of the member countries openly refusing to fulfil its obligations to protect the Schengen borders.”
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has taken the hardest line against immigrants, including building a fence on his country’s border with Serbia to keep people out, similarly argued, “If the Greeks are not able to defend their own borders, we should let the other countries of the EU defend the Greek border.”
The Financial Times cites some analysts suggesting Greece is deliberately relaxing border controls to win concessions on the implementation of its third bailout. The far-left government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was elected earlier this year on a promise to cancel austerity, but was forced to agree to further pension cuts and liberalizations to stave off bankruptcy.
Aris Hatzis, an Athens university professor, says, “Tsipras saw the refugee issue as a bargaining chip, but it’s going to backfire disastrously if the threat of Schengen suspension becomes a public issue.”
In March, the Greek defense minister threatened to give all immigrants travel papers to go to Berlin unless Germany agreed to a more lenient bailout agreement. It didn’t.
The free-travel arrangement is a bargaining chip for other European nations as well. Greece doesn’t share a land border with the rest of the Schengen Area, so suspending it would have no impact on migrant flows. But it would be an irritant for Greeks traveling to other countries.