ATHENS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Greece hit back on Wednesday at threats from some EU states to suspend it from the Schengen zone of open border travel because of its failure to control large numbers of migrants entering Europe.
Some central European officials, most prominently Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, have suggested excluding Greece from Schengen. Diplomats and European Union officials say some governments have raised the possibility informally but it would be a largely symbolic move, with little impact on migration.
“It is not said officially, but there is pressure,” Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters, denying a Financial Times report on Wednesday that Athens had, among other things, refused an EU offer of devices designed to share the identity data of incoming migrants around the bloc.
“These are very common lies for Greece ... This blame game towards our country is unfair,” he said.
The Financial Times said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn had conveyed a suspension warning on a visit to Athens this week, but Mouzalas and a spokeswoman for Asselborn denied the report. Several diplomats said it had not been formally discussed by EU governments.
“We are working to maintain Schengen and make it work properly,” an EU official said. “The moment of truth will be the December European Council,” the official said, referring to the next meeting of EU leaders in Brussels in two weeks’ time.
Clashes erupted on the Greek-Macedonian border on Tuesday when Macedonian riot police fired tear gas to repel up to 1,000 mostly Pakistani migrants trying to force their way across a newly erected border fence, a Reuters witness said. One Macedonian officer fired warning shots in the air.
Frustration has risen in recent weeks in the European Commission, the EU executive charged with ramping up controls on the external borders, and among EU governments that Greece is failing to make use of available EU funds and personnel to ensure people arriving in the Schengen area are documented.
With no land borders with the rest of the 26-nation Schengen area, Greece has allowed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Syrian refugees, to travel from its islands off the Turkish coast across Greece to the northern border with non-EU Macedonia as they head for Germany.
Mouzalas said that as long as Turkey did not shut down people smugglers operating on its coastline, Athens could not stop frail boats packed with refugees from landing on Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. He said he had taken EU ambassadors out to sea to watch arrivals and asked what Athens should do.
“They don’t dare to ask us ‘drown them’, but if you do push-back on a plastic boat in the middle of the sea with 50 or 70 refugees aboard, you’re asking me to drown them,” the minister said.
EU diplomats said suspending Greece from the open-border rules - activating Article 26 of the Schengen treaty so that people arriving at ports and airports from Greece were treated as coming from outside the Schengen zone - could be discussed at a meeting of EU interior ministers on Friday.
However, some also said that Greece appeared to be moving now to implement EU measures to control migrants and so a common front against Athens was unlikely as early as this week.
“It’s a tool for pushing Greece to accept EU help,” one senior diplomat said. Since migrants and refugees have rarely used airlines or international ferries, the main impact of other Schengen states imposing passport checks on arrivals from Greece would be on Greeks and tourists who are vital to the Greek economy.
Another senior EU diplomat said: “The Greek position is moving in the necessary direction.” As a result, a discussion of suspension from Schengen this week may not be needed.
A Luxembourg government spokeswoman said Asselborn’s latest visit to Greece was to check on the functioning of EU-agreed measures, such as processing migrants through “hot spots” for identification. Greece is meant to have five such “hot spots” by the end of the year but seems likely to have two at most.
Asselborn asked Greece to accept help offered by the EU, including cash and border guards from the bloc’s Frontex agency and discussed why a plan to move migrants from Greece to other EU states in an orderly fashion is not yet functioning.
EU officials accept Greek criticism that other states have failed to organize facilities to take in refugees but say Athens, despite the economic problems that saw it nearly drop out of the euro zone this year, could do more.
Mouzalas said Greece had spent 1 billion euros in additional unbudgeted funds from its strained budget this year on coping with the refugee influx, and had received a mere 30 million euros so far in EU assistance due to bureaucracy on both sides.
He welcomed Frontex assistance to register refugees but said that under Greek law, only Greek forces could patrol its border.
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told Reuters that EU states should show Greece understanding and that suspending it from Schengen would not be helpful: “The problem is definitely there and I do know that we need to work together to solve it. But building fences between us is not a long-term solution.”
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Paul Taylor and Karolina Tagaris in Athens and Alexandros Avramidis in Idomeni, Greece; @macdonaldrtr; editing by David Stamp