Prague: Europe could suspend passport-free travel for two years under emergency measures as leaders warn the migrant crisis could destroy the European Union.
As they prepare for a summit to discuss a crisis plan in Amsterdam on Monday, EU leaders have warned there is now just six to eight weeks to save the Schengen zone from a chaotic collapse as hundreds of thousands of migrants in Turkey prepare for crossings in the northern hemisphere spring. About 2.6 million more people are forecast to arrive in the next two years.
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43 refugees drown after boats capsize
After this latest tragedy to unfold in the Mediterranean, European leaders are calling for a more coordinated approach on how to deal with the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. Vision courtesy ABC.
Six countries – Germany, France, Sweden, Austria, France, Denmark and Norway – have already introduced border checks under emergency six-month powers that will expire in May in an attempt to halt the flow of migrants.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that the "very idea of Europe" was in "grave danger" unless the human tide is repelled.
The EU must tell migrants "with the greatest of firmness" that they are not all welcome, he said.
The warning comes as at least 43 people, including 17 children, were confirmed drowned when their boats capsized off two Greek islands near the Turkish coast on Friday, marking one of the deadliest days for refugees risking the perilous route to Europe from Turkey. Three other migrants died in Greece on Wednesday from hypothermia while 12 died on Friday while attempting the Aegean Sea crossing.
His warning came as British Prime Minister David Cameron indicated he was ready to drop his central demand of a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits in favour of an "emergency brake" mechanism.
The British government would be able to ask the European Commission to halt an influx if it was putting a major strain on the public purse, under plans discussed with Mr Cameron by Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
In talks chaired by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, interior ministers will discuss an emergency clause in the 30-year-old Schengen Agreement that would allow border checks to be imposed for two years in the case of "serious persistent deficiencies" in the external border.
"This possibility exists, it is there and the commission is prepared to use it if need be," said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
"We're not yet in that situation," Ms Bertaud added. "But interior ministers will on Monday in Amsterdam have the opportunity to discuss and it's on the agenda what steps should be taken."
They will also discuss Mr Juncker's proposal for an EU border force equipped with ocean-going vessels, helicopters, drones and the power to enter a country without its government's consent.
No final decision will be taken until a summit of EU leaders in March.
In a further blow to the Schengen zone, Mr Valls said France would keep its state of emergency, which has included border checks, until Islamic State's network is destroyed. It was imposed after the Paris attacks in November which killed 130 people. Without proper border controls to turn away refugees, the 60-year old European project could disintegrate, he said.
"If Europe can't protect its own borders, it's the very idea of Europe that could be thrown into doubt," he told the BBC. "The first message we need to send now is with the greatest of firmness is to say that we will not welcome all the refugees in Europe. Because a message that says come, you will be welcome, provokes major shifts."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a fence should be erected on the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders with Greece to curb the inflow of migrants.
The EU border agency Frontex said on Friday that about 108,000 migrants arrived in Greece in December.
That compares with 150,000 arrivals in November and puts the total for Greece and Italy at 1.04 million in 2015, or five times as many as in 2014.
Austria has announced that it will limit the number of people allowed to apply for asylum to 1.5 per cent of its population over the next four years, or 37,500. The move piles more pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing intense demands from her conservative allies to follow suit.