EU mulls two-year Schengen suspension over migrant crisis

Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border on Sept 16, 2015.
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border on Sept 16, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Commission said on Tuesday (Jan 26) it may eventually allow member states of the passport-free Schengen zone to reintroduce border checks for up to two years to cope with the migration crisis.

At a meeting in Amsterdam on Monday EU interior ministers had asked the Commission - the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union - about the possibility of extending the checks.

"We want to be prepared for all eventualities but we are not at the activation stage yet," Ms Natasha Bertaud, the Commission's spokesman on migration, told reporters in Brussels.

"If the situation does not change and there could indeed be justifications under public order and security reasons to maintain internal controls at internal Schengen borders," Ms Bertaud added.

"We want to be prepared so we are pursuing the options that could be available to us under article 26 if and when we need to activate them."

Article 26 of the Schengen code allows members of the 26-country zone, which includes most European Union countries, to reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of up to two years under exceptional circumstances.

In the last few months, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and non-EU member Norway have all introduced temporary controls over the migrant crisis, but with a limit of six months.

The member states are required to inform the commission, which reviews whether they meet the criteria for reintroducing controls.

"We know the migratory flows are not going to be subsiding soon and as the weather changes are even likely to increase again," Ms Bertaud said.

The introduction of the temporary controls has raised fears that the Schengen zone - a symbol of European unity, freedom and prosperity - could collapse.

But Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: "We are saving Schengen by applying Schengen."

An extension of border controls has also sparked concerns that Greece - the landing point for around 80 per cent of all migrants arriving in Europe - could be effectively frozen out of Schengen.

"If we do not manage to secure Europe's external border, this is the Greek-Turkish border, the European external border will move towards central Europe," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said on Monday.

Last week Ms Mikl-Leitner warned Athens could face "temporary exclusion" from Schengen.