Europe's Schengen zone could collapse with migrant influx

Migrants queueing at the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs for registration on Feb 5.
Migrants queueing at the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs for registration on Feb 5.PHOTO: REUTERS

PRAGUE (BLOOMBERG) - The European Union has, at most, six weeks to stem the flow of migrants arriving on its shores via Turkey before it will be forced to abandon its internal borderless travel zone, according to the Czech envoy to the bloc.

A deal with Turkey to stop migrants isn't producing the desired result, and if it fails, Germany will close its frontiers to passport-free travel as early as March, said Tomas Prouza, the Czech Secretary of State for European Union Affairs. That would trigger a "domino effect" of border controls coming down through Austria and across the Balkans to Greece's northern border, shutting down the so-called Schengen area.

"If the deal with Turkey fails, do we want to have this moving of closing borders done in a very unorganized way that would create a lot of bad blood among neighbours?" said Prouza. "Or should we do this in an organized way and simply agree that the northern Greek border is a second defence line and the only defence line we have? Our preference is to do this in an organized way."

Europe's refugee crisis is roiling politics across the continent, threatening to end free-movement, a principle that underpins the 28-nation trading bloc, and hobble economic growth. With EU countries expecting as many as 1 million migrants to arrive this year - matching last year's numbers - leaders will address the crisis at a summit in Brussels next week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has unsuccessfully tried to convince other EU members to help alleviate the burden on her country - the desired destination for most of the refugees primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - by agreeing to bloc-wide quotas for sheltering migrants. The deal with Turkey, which initially agreed to keep the migrants within its borders in exchange for 3 billion euros (US$3.4 billion, S$4.17 billion) in aid, has failed to stem arrivals into the EU, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned there may come a time when Turkey will "open the doors" and let all the refugees leave.

The only way to end the flood of illegal migration into Greece was for the EU to take some people directly from Turkey in return for the government in Ankara helping to stop illegal entries, Merkel said on Feb 8 during her visit to Turkey. In response to her plea for help, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance agreed on Feb 11 to launch a naval mission to track refugee boats in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to help stop human traffickers who bring migrants to Greek islands.

To prevent a domino effect of countries imposing border controls, the bloc should temporarily seal the northern Greek border with Macedonia and Bulgaria, and give those three countries financial and other assistance, Prouza said. The Czech Republic is prepared to help by offering policemen, soldiers and financial aid, he said.

"Of course the primary solution should be the EU-Turkey deal, but the things we want Turkey to do aren't materializing," said Prouza. "We really need to be ready for the other option."

Like Hungary and other eastern EU members, the Czechs have rejected quotas for sheltering refugees. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the first EU leader to build a border fence to keep people out, said he wants to block the agreement between Germany and Turkey. Hungary, along with Slovakia, has filed a lawsuit to try to block the mandatory distribution of migrants.

The crisis has begun to strain social services and inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, emboldening Merkel's political rivals and challenging her decade-long grip on power. The German chancellor has toughened her tone on asylum seekers following sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve by groups which involved some migrants.

"If the flow continues through March, there will be significant pressure in Germany and some other countries to start closing the borders," Prouza said.