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EU begins talks on how to contain migrant flow

EU figures show more than 2,000 people are still arriving daily [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 January, 2016

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European ministers have started urgent discussions on how to tackle a refugee crisis amid the stream of new arrivals and continuing disagreements over how to seal off borders.

European Union ministers opened talks on Monday in Amsterdam on ways to save the Schengen passport-free zone from collapse under migrant flows.

Ministers also discussed ways to tackle threats from extremist motivated violence as a new counter-terrorism centre is launched on the continent.

The two-day meeting of interior and justice ministers is the first under the six-month Dutch European Union presidency that aims to broker a deal by 30 June on setting up a new pan-European border and coastguard force.

The force was said to be a key topic for debate on Monday afternoon.

Supporters believe it will slow the unprecedented influx of migrants across the 28-nation bloc's porous external frontiers and remove the need for Schengen member states to reintroduce internal border checks.

Ministers are seeking to stem the flow through Greece, where authorities are struggling to contain the crossings by boat from Turkey.

If that fails, Europe may need to set up border controls somewhere else, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said.

"It's clear that if we can't secure the European borders - that means the Greek-Turkish border - then the Schengen border will move to central Europe," she told reporters.

It's clear that if we can't secure the European borders — that means the Greek-Turkish border — then the Schengen border will move to central Europe
- Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Austrian Interior Minister

EU figures show more than 2,000 people are still arriving daily to the continent, despite choppy seas and wintery conditions.

Italy's Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, said his country was not in favour of effectively pushing Europe's border up to Greece's northern border with Macedonia.

"We are of the idea that Europe must remain a stable structure, that there cannot be bits of Europe inside and bits of Europe outside because that would be the start of dissolution," he said.

It will be preceded in the morning by talks on terrorism, which remains at the top of the agenda following the 14 November Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

French President Francois Hollande has said the attacks were decided in Syria but prepared and organised in Belgium, whose capital Brussels hosts EU headquarters.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks and on Sunday released a video purporting to show nine extremists involved in the Paris bloodshed, in which they threaten "coalition" countries including Britain.

Launch of counter-terrorism centre

The morning meeting in Amsterdam coincided with the formal launch of the new counter-terrorism centre at Europol headquarters in The Hague, designed to improve intelligence sharing among often wary EU member states.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve vowed on Sunday to put "considerable pressure" on EU members and institutions to step up the terror fight, accusing some states of slacking because they had not been hit by extremist attacks.

The European police agency's director Rob Wainwright said that intelligence cooperation had already improved since the attacks in Paris.

But he said the new centre will further improve information sharing at a time when the performance of the police and intelligence services is under intense scrutiny.

"It establishes for the first time in Europe a dedicated operation centre," Wainwright told AFP in an interview in Davos, Switzerland.

'Underlying obstacles'

The Dutch presidency said on its website it would like the interior ministers to discuss the "remaining underlying obstacles for information exchange on foreign terrorist fighters and ways forward to clear these obstacles".

European officials have long worried about the eventual return of an estimated 5,000 EU nationals who joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, where they have become hardened to battle and experts in weapons use.

Belgian and French investigators are probing the extent of links between the attackers on the ground in Paris and the Islamic State group in Syria.

The resumption of months-long talks on the worst migrant crisis in Europe since World War II will focus on Dutch efforts to broker a deal on the border guard force, which is seen as a way to save Schengen, a symbol of European unity and prosperity.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned earlier this month that the collapse of the Schengen Zone could kill off the internal market.

Greece guards its borders and European borders. What it cannot do and will not do is sink boats and drown women and children because European and international law and the values of our civilisation forbid it
- Nikos Xidakis, Greece's deputy Minister of European Affairs

Greece is under the most political pressure as it shares an external EU border with Turkey, the main gateway for the more than one million Syrian and other asylum seekers entering the bloc last year.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner in the last few days warned that Athens faced "temporary exclusion" from the Schengen Zone in order persuade Greece to better protect its borders.

Clearly irked, Greece's deputy Minister of European Affairs Nikos Xidakis on Sunday hit back at suggestions that the country was failing to block the flow of migrants.

"Greece guards its borders and European borders. What it cannot do and will not do is sink boats and drown women and children because European and international law and the values of our civilisation forbid it," he was quoted as saying in a statement.

Austria is one of several Schengen countries that have reintroduced temporary border controls to cope with heavy migrant flows.

European sources said the ministers may renew talks about prolonging the checks to two years, instead of the current maximum of six months.

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