The future of Schengen and the unity of the EU are at stake, warns EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. With the help of a road map, the EU wants to reopen all of its internal borders by the end of the year.
Europe finds itself in "testing times," said EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Friday, speaking to the press. However, he added, one cannot lose sight of what is at stake: Schengen, European unity and what has been built over the last 60 years.
Avramopoulos was referring to Europe's common economic space and freedom of movement within the Schengen zone, the EU's 26-nation passport-free travel zone. The closure of Europe's borders would give rise to costs of at least 18 billion euros (about $19.7 billion) per year, according to calculations made in Brussels. More trucks lined up at border crossings, fewer tourists and increased numbers of border guards: all this would add up to billions in losses.
And yet, these calculations have still not prompted Austria or other Balkan countries to reconsider their actions. Since Brussels has been unable to resolve these political differences, the European Commission has turned its focus to the operational side of the problem.
Road map for restoration
Everything depends on the protection of the Greek-Turkish border. By the end of next week, Greece must present an action plan on how it intends to implement the 50 individual requirements for border protection, the comprehensive registration of refugees and the repatriation of economic migrants, among other issues.
At the end of March, the EU border agency Frontex will then recruit border guards to help Greece. In mid-April, the new measures will be reviewed. If they aren't working by then, the Commission will extend the deadline for the partial closure of borders for another two years, as of this May - essentially, the plan would be a failure.
If the plan works to a large extent, the European Council will decide on the deployment of EU border guards to protect the external borders. These guards would begin work in September and would be fully operational by November, allowing all the EU's internal borders to be reopened in December. At least, in theory.
Nothing possible without Turkey
"Turkey has served as a corridor" and made the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees possible, said Avramopoulos, making it clear that Turkey's cooperation is decisive. "The EU needs Turkey to tackle this problem."
And the new cooperation appears to be bearing fruit, with the repatriation of the first 300 illegal migrants. This is one of the cornerstones of the strategy: it will only work if Turkey takes back the refugees who are not entitled to protection in Europe. The objective is to prevent as many refugees as possible from reaching European soil by stopping them outside of the EU's external borders.
And Turkey must be relieved of large numbers of refugees, as the country already hosts more than 2.7 million Syrians. Yet no one has identified the EU member states - except for Germany - willing to support this solution.
Cooperation with Ankara
At the same time, the Commission has released a report on the loosening of visa requirements for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU. Progress is to be assessed in July, paving the way for a decision on the easing of restrictions in October, with immediate effect.
That's just one of the carrots being offered to Ankara, to coax the government into cooperation. Brussels is also preparing to open the next stages of EU accession talks with Turkey. And money is also starting to flow: The EU has promised 3 billion euros if Turkey prevents refugees from crossing the border. On Friday, the EU already pledged 95 million euros: around half will go toward schooling for approximately 110,000 Syrian children, while the rest will provide for food vouchers from the World Food Program.
Best laid plans…
But when pressed with the question of who is even welcome in Europe, the Commission was only able to give abstract answers. "We are open to everyone that needs international protection," said Avramopoulos on Friday. According the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), 48 percent of those people arriving are Syrian war refugees. "They are not declaring that they are Syrians, they are Syrians," emphasized a UNHCR spokesperson.
Theoretically, therefore, they must be allowed to enter Italy or Greece and then be distributed within the EU - a process that has yet to function properly. The same rules should also apply to Iraqis and Afghanis who have a valid claim to at least temporary protection. Looking at the problem closely, however, it's clear that even if the measures were completely implemented the refugee influx could only be cut down by half at best.
Concluding his press conference, Avramopoulos once again referred to the "ugly smuggling business." On Thursday, European Council President Donald Tusk made a dramatic appeal to economic migrants, telling them to remain at home and not believe the lies of human traffickers, warning they would not be admitted to Europe.
Nevertheless, the fight against traffickers, so often the subject of European meetings, so far exists mainly on paper. Human trafficking is a multibillion euro business, one that has very deep roots in several Balkan states and also in Turkey.