EU to extend border checks amid refugee crisis, terror fears

By James G. Neuger | Bloomberg | Published: January 25, 2016

European Union governments prepared to prolong passport checks at some internal borders for up to two more years, as the unrelenting inflow of refugees overwhelms countries from debt-stressed Greece to economically mighty Germany.

Extended controls at borders in northern and western Europe would come as the 28-nation bloc fails to get to grips with the more than 1 million migrants who have flooded in over the past year. Near-permanent alerts of further terrorism after November's Paris attacks add to the close-the-borders mood.

Frontier restrictions north of the Alps would put added pressure on Greece, which was still digging out from the euro fiscal crisis when it became the first European port of call for refugees hazarding the voyage from Syria through Turkey and on to the richer west.

National interior ministers decided "to prepare the legal and practical basis for the continuance of temporary border measures," Klaas Dijkhoff, Dutch state secretary for security and justice, told reporters on Monday after an EU meeting in Amsterdam.

In practice, that would allow countries like Germany, which has EU authorization to halt traffic at some border crossings until May, to continue those checks for 18 more months. Sweden, Denmark, France, Austria and Norway — a non-EU country that takes part in the passport-free system — are also among the countries that could extend controls.

Europeans have come to see no-passport travel between 26 countries — Britain and Ireland are the main outsiders — as an entitlement. Prolonged controls, though not at all borders or of all passengers, would mark a victory for nationalist politicians who deride the EU as unable to protect its people.

Now caught up in the twin storms of debt and migration, Greece painted itself as a victim of geography. As the first stopping-off point in the EU, it has been the destination of 900,000 refugees since the start of 2015, with an average daily count of 1,910 so far this year, according to the United Nations.

While Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek minister for migration, denounced "lies" uttered across Europe over Greece's troubles in coping with the inflow, he also announced that long-delayed reception centers for refugees will be functional by early March.

"There's a big and unfair blame game against Greece," Mouzalas said. Europe, he said, has shortchanged Greece by providing smaller-than-promised numbers of everything from cots and fingerprinting machines to border guards.

Only 94 of the 66,400 migrants eligible for relocation from Greece have been sent to new homes elsewhere in Europe, with acceptances by only six countries, according to EU data. Luxembourg, the EU's second-smallest state, has taken the most: 30.

In a further slight to Greece, the interior ministers agreed to explore offering EU help to seal the border of the Republic of Macedonia, a non-EU country on the route from Greece further north. Mouzalas called that an illegal "panic" move that would bottle up the destitute masses in Greece.

"It's a myth that the Greek-Turkish border can't be protected," said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner of Austria, which last week set an upper limit on new arrivals. Mikl-Leitner said the Greek navy has "sufficient capacity" to keep refugees out.

Fears of terrorism stalked the EU discussions. The bloc's crime-fighting agency announced at the Amsterdam meeting that Islamic State has set up a special operations command to mastermind more attacks in Europe, drawing on training camps on European soil and with France as the most at-risk country.

The model is the simultaneous shootings at several locations in Paris in November which killed 130, with most of the bloodshed at a concert hall in eastern Paris, said the agency, known as Europol.

It is possible that similar operations "are currently being planned and prepared," Europol said. "The wide range of possible targets in combination with an opportunistic approach of locally based groups creates a huge variety of possible scenarios for future terrorist events."

While Syria remains the hub, Islamic State has set up "smaller scale" training camps in the EU and in the Balkans, granting local operatives greater tactical freedom to strike at will, Europol said. It found no "concrete evidence" of terrorist operatives "systematically" sneaking into Europe in the guise of refugees.

France has no evidence of terrorist indoctrination camps on its soil, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. While calling the threat level "high" in Europe and "extremely high" in France, he said the Europol assessment dates to early December and doesn't go beyond what France has already disclosed.

"The problem isn't national: it's European, it's global," Cazeneuve said. He backed initiatives to clamp down on arms trafficking, enforce full passports on all travelers to Europe and link up passenger and criminal databases.

The terror effect of massacring unprotected civilians has led Islamic State to favor "soft targets" over infrastructure such as electrical lines, nuclear plants or transport networks, Europol said.


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