By Renee Maltezou and Karolina Tagaris
Excluding Greece from the open-border Schengen area will not solve the migrant crisis that is testing Europe’s cohesion to its limits, EU Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday.
Europe needed to improve the protection of its external borders, he told reporters after talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens. That required more effort by Greece, but also more support from its European Union partners.
Central European nations on Monday proposed drafting emergency back-up plans to halt the flow of migrants to Western Europe through the Balkans, effectively ring-fencing Greece.
“The migration crisis is testing our union to its limits,” Tusk said. “For all those talking of excluding Greece from Schengen, thinking this is a solution to the migration crisis, I say no, it is not.”
Greece — the main entry point into Europe for more than a million refugees and migrants since last year, many crossing the sea from Turkey — is under intense pressure from its EU partners to tighten border checks.
EU ministers last week gave Greece three months to fulfil 50 recommendations to fix its borders. If it does not, the EU members of the free-travel Schengen zone can impose checks on internal frontiers for up to two years.
Tusk, who was in Greece to rustle up support for an ambitious EU reform programme designed to keep Britain in the EU, was echoing sentiments expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said Greece needed help in meeting its border protection duties, and not shunned.
“Let me be clear,” Tusk said. “Excluding Greece from Schengen solves none of our problems.”
Greece says the burden it is assuming in the migrants crisis is disproportionate, adding strain on a nation reeling from six years of deep recession induced by austerity under the terms of three international financial bailouts.
Athens says numbers are too big to handle, that it cannot turn back boatloads of refugees and migrants into the sea, and that Turkey do more to stop the migrants at its shores.
Greece said on Tuesday it had set up four out of five proposed registration centres for refugees, drafting in the army to help.
The leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia said on Monday there should be tighter controls on the borders of Balkan countries neighbouring Greece if attempts to limit the numbers from Turkey to Greece failed..
Tsipras repeated his call for a common European approach.
EU leaders are due to meet this week to discuss EU reforms and the migration crisis. At the Feb. 18-19 summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reach a deal on reforms which he will put to Britons on a referendum on EU membership expected to be held in late June.