Germany, Austria raise border-check spectre against Greece
Mar 8, 2012, 12:02 GMT
Brussels - Germany and Austria on Thursday pressed cash-strapped Greece to properly secure its border with Turkey, warning that they could reintroduce border controls if Athens failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
'The (Greek) border is open like a barn door,' Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Brussels. 'The pressure on Greece must be increased ... It cannot be that a member state which does not do its homework gets away with it scot-free.'
'The question is still open on what happens when a country is not in a position to sufficiently safeguard its borders - as we are currently experiencing in Greece,' German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich added.
Both spoke before meeting European Union counterparts in Brussels.
Caught in a deepening financial crisis, the Greek government has struggled to meet the terms of an EU-agreed action plan to secure its borders and improve its asylum procedures.
Quoting the contents of an EU progress report which was discussed Thursday, Friedrich said Greece had so far hired only 11 out of 300 extra immigration officials and planned one out of 14 new immigration centres.
'The overall situation remains worrying,' EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said after the talks. 'We are willing to help ... but of course the main responsibility lies with Greece,' she added.
Frontier controls are contentious because Europe's Schengen area is supposed to be border-free. The problem made headlines last year after France reintroduced them amid a tiff with Italy over an influx of migrants fleeing Arab Spring uprisings.
The spat over Greece is undermining efforts to create a common asylum system by the end of this year, because several EU countries are unwilling to commit to the idea until the bloc's external borders are secured and proper asylum procedures followed by all members.
The European Commission said German and Austrian proposals on border controls were not possible under current Schengen rules - but could be if reforms it presented last year following the Franco-Italian spat were to be adopted.
'The proposal that is on the table by the commission aims at exactly this,' Malmstrom's spokesman, Michele Cercone, said.
'Some member states have clearly stated that this is not the way they want to go, and other member states have expressed some support,' he added.
No progress was recorded on the issue Thursday, but ministers agreed to meet every six months in a new Schengen steering committee to resolve political differences over the workings of the system.
After southern European countries like Italy and Spain tightened controls in the Mediterranean, the Greek-Turkish land border has become the preferred EU entry point for illegal migrants.
On Wednesday, the German and Austrian ministers met with counterparts from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain and called for more to be done to secure that border.
'We urgently need a dialogue with Turkey,' Friedrich said.
The EU has signed a readmission agreement with Turkey that would force it to take back illegal migrants found to have entered the bloc through its territory.
But the deal has not yet been ratified. Ankara would like the EU to first start talks on easing visa requirements for Turkish citizens, an area where the bloc's governments are extremely reluctant to make progress.
In their final communique, interior ministers agreed that countries facing migration crises like Greece should be able to access EU funds more rapidly.
'The Greeks are in a deep crisis and we must help the Greeks - and not just economically, financially,' Luxembourg Immigration Minister Nicolas Schmit said before the meeting started.
But on Wednesday an EU diplomat quipped that 'the problem is not so much solidarity towards Greece ... it rather is the capacity of Greece to absorb this solidarity.'
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