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EU to press ahead with plans to suspend Schengen rules

Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker
Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images

EU interior ministers have agreed to press ahead with plans to suspend the Schengen passport-free travel zone, in a move that paves the way for governments to introduce border checks for up to two years.

At a ministerial meeting in Brussels, Germany led support for the proposal as part of a series of measures aimed at alleviating the refugee crisis, which has revealed cracks in the EU's emblematic border control-free area.

The plan to allow states to impose temporary border controls was floated this week by Luxembourg, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Council.

Berlin triggered a wave of tit-for-tat temporary border checks and closures this summer as countries on the so-called western Balkans route — which stretches from Greece through the former Yugoslavia and into Austria — struggled to cope with the influx of migrants travelling along it.

Speaking after the meeting, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's minister for migration, said: "The ministers agreed that if there are serious shortcomings that endanger the area, then we need to have a common European framework to deal with borders over and above six months."

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Under Article 26 of the Schengen Area rules, member states can introduce extra checks if there are "persistent serious deficiencies" at the bloc's border — a condition that EU officials argue matches the situation in Greece.

Greece, which has borne the brunt of the migration crisis, has struggled to cope with the 700,000 people who have passed through this year.

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A senior EU official said: "We have run out of easy answers. . . We only have bad options left. These are options that are painful and require breaking taboos and taking actions that we do not instinctively want to take. This is the responsibility on our leaders now."

EU officials discussed the possibility of, in effect, suspending Greece from Schengen, in a move that would force Greek citizens to go through passport control when flying to other parts of the area.

People walk on shore after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on November 26, 2015.
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But the Greek government hit back this week at suggestions that it was not doing enough, arguing that EU states had failed to come up with promised support. Athens also agreed this week for border guards operated by Frontex, the EU's border agency, to be placed along the country's land border with Macedonia.

During Friday's meeting, ministers also discussed the bloc's floundering "relocation" scheme, that was supposed to result in 160,000 refugees being shared out among the bloc from frontline countries such as Greece and Italy. So far, only 159 of the 160,000 asylum seekers have been moved, with just 30 coming from Greece.

Ministers also agreed a compromise with the European Parliament over long-running plans to introduce a passenger name record — a key demand of the French government in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

The proposal, which will give security services access to flight data, had been repeatedly delayed since it was first introduced in 2008, due to concerns about personal privacy.

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