THE HAGUE (AFP) - Europe risks collapsing like the Roman Empire over the refugee crisis, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has warned according to the Financial Times, as his country gears up to be the next EU president.
Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty mainly in the Middle East and Africa have landed on European shores in recent months, straining ties between the 28 members of the European Union.
"The first step is to make sure the border is controlled. As we all know from the Roman Empire, big empires go down if the borders are not well protected," Rutte said, quoted by the Financial Times late Thursday (Nov 26).
Rutte was speaking to a small group of reporters invited to travel from Brussels to his office in The Hague as the Netherlands prepares to takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1.
The Dutch government has made the refugee crisis one of the top priorities of its presidency.
"We need to stem the flow of migrants coming to Europe. We can't continue at the present level," Rutte added in the interview, according to the online EUObserver daily.
Some 850,000 people have entered the European Union this year, more than half of them landing in Greece, in what has become Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Dutch officials have vowed to work to maintain European unity during the next six months, and protect the 26-country passport-free Schengen zone.
"I think it is one of our first tasks to make sure that Schengen remains functioning," Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told AFP on Wednesday.
"It's not only about setting the agenda. It's also about keeping the 28 (EU members) together," he added.
His remarks came hot on the heels of a warning on Friday (Nov 27) by Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem that a small group of EU countries could be forced to form a "mini-Schengen" if the bloc failed to resolve its migrant crisis.
Dutch officials are also anxiously watching events in Britain, which is due to hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU by the end of 2017.
Rutte warned the hopes of British Prime Minister David Cameron of clinching a deal with the EU before the end of the year to avoid a "Brexit" were fading.
"I am not sure we will get to a conclusion in December. That has to be seen," Rutte said, quoted by the Guardian.
One sticking point is Cameron's plan to slash immigration by restricting state benefits to migrants from elsewhere in the EU for their first four years in Britain.
EU members were also stalling over Cameron's call that Britain should not be outvoted by the 19 members of the eurozone.
"When I take a look at what David Cameron has proposed, I think some of them are doable and some of them are more difficult," said Rutte, according to The Guardian.
"We very much want to help, but we have to find some middle ground on these issues," he said.