European governments are bracing for a major humanitarian emergency in Greece amid rising panic that the EU’s fragmented efforts to cope with its migration crisis are nearing breakdown.
EU interior ministers met in Brussels on Thursday in their latest attempt to forge a common response, but the meeting was clouded by a ferocious row between Greece and Austria, which is spearheading a campaign to quarantine Greece and throttle the flow of migrants up the Balkans by partially sealing the Greek border with Macedonia.
If Greece is cut off from the rest of Europe’s free-travel Schengen area, Berlin predicts a humanitarian and security emergency within days.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner in charge of migration, said contingency planning for a major aid operation was highly advanced and would be finalised within days. “The possibility of a humanitarian crisis of a large scale is there and very real,” he said.
A senior EU official involved in the planning said “the humanitarian dimension in Europe is becoming much more important than it has been until now”.
The shift in focus from taking in refugees to dealing with the consequences of keeping most of them out amounts to an admission of abject failure in developing coherent EU policies on the crisis.
Athens reacted furiously to the latest developments, recalling its ambassador from Vienna, accusing Austria of 19th-century behaviour, and blaming Europe for creating a crisis it was now preparing to relieve.
An EU country recalling its ambassador from another EU country may be unprecedented, highlighting the depths of division and grievance in Europe over the refugee crisis.
Speaking of the interior ministers’ meeting, Yannis Mouzalas, the Greek migration minister, said: “A very large number [of participants] here attempt to discuss how to address a humanitarian crisis in Greece that they themselves intend to create.”
Ministers appear to have set themselves a deadline of 7 March before resorting to a “plan B” being pushed by anti-immigration eastern Europe, which would cut Greece off and probably also see the 26-country Schengen area being suspended for up to two years as national border controls proliferate across the EU.
“In the next 10 days, we need tangible and clear results on the ground. Otherwise there is a risk that the whole system will completely break down,” warned Avramopoulos.
Austria provoked the fury of the Greeks, the Germans and the European commission by announcing last week it was limiting the number of people who could claim asylum to 80 a day, and then on Wednesday unilaterally convening a meeting of 10 Balkan countries aimed at halting the refugee flow and returning them to Greece. The Austrians did not invite the Greeks or the Germans, two pivotal countries.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, insisted on a special EU summit with Turkey on 7 March, hoping to cajole the Turks into stopping the crossings to Greece and in return pledging to take hundreds of thousands of refugees directly from Turkey.
Merkel, however, is isolated. There is little confidence that the Turks will deliver and several countries opposed to Merkel actively hope her plan will fail. A large majority of EU states will refuse to take part in directly resettling refugees from Turkey.
“The clock is ticking. Time is running out on a Turkey solution,” said the Dutch immigration minister, Klaas Dijkhoff, who chaired Thursday’s meeting. “Other plans and measures are being taken in the meantime.”
The piecemeal unilateral moves being taken across Europe – this week alone Hungary, Belgium, and Austria announced solo moves on immigration curbs – are adding to the sense of chaos and impotence in the EU and are turning Greece into Europe’s immigration pressure cooker.
Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, is threatening to block decisions at EU summits unless there is a major shift towards coherent policy-making. Avramopoulos reiterated tired mantras on Thursday on the need for European rather than national solutions, but his pleas only served to underline how the commission in Brussels is being ignored and bypassed.
Senior officials in Brussels and from several countries say that the sole yardstick that matters is that the numbers of migrants arriving in the EU falls sharply. This is not happening. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 100,000 have arrived in Greece since the start of the year, a tenfold increase on the same period last year.
SOURCE: Ian Traynor