BRUSSELS – Passport-free travel and hassle-free business in Europe has never been in more danger.
With more than 1 million people streaming into the European Union hoping for sanctuary or jobs, nations have erected fences, deployed troops and tightened border controls.
"What we have worked for, for so many years, we are seeing it crumbling now in front of us," Roberta Metsola, a leading EU lawmaker on migration, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
As draconian as they might seem, most attempts to stem the migrant flow have been within the letter, if not the spirit, of the rules governing the European travel haven known as the Schengen area, a jewel in the EU's integration crown
But as of mid-May, the EU is in uncharted waters. The legal options for countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden to impose ID checks on everyone who enters, including Europeans, begin to run out.
"Our citizens have a right to feel safe," Metsola said. "If that means that we will need to keep stock of who is crossing our borders for a specific amount of time, then we will have to do it."
The German government has signaled it's unlikely to ease border controls on May 13, when its temporary border measures legally expire. If no other mechanism is in place by then, the Schengen rule book could effectively be suspended.
Most EU nations blame Greece for this. Some 850,000 people arrived there last year, many to the Greek islands after a short but often treacherous sea journey in smugglers' boats from Turkey.
Aid groups estimate that Greece has shelter for barely 10,000 people; a little over one percent of those who need it. The Greek coastguard is totally overwhelmed.
Managing the country's vast maritime border would challenge even an experienced government with a fully equipped public service. Greece, at the moment, is also consumed with a crippling economic crisis.
But, Metsola said, "there is a lack of knowledge as to who is coming in and who is going out, and that automatically increases fear and increases the security concerns."
Most migrants don't want to stay in Greece. Many hope to be find sanctuary in Germany or Sweden, and these countries and their neighbors say they will have to impose border controls if Greece can't or won't.
"It's clear that if we can't secure the European borders — that means the Greek-Turkish border — then the Schengen border will move to central Europe," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Monday.
With Schengen under threat, few palatable options are available and time is running out.
The EU's executive Commission is preparing a plan that could allow border checks in some countries to be extended for up to two years.
But the plan might take three months to introduce, which effectively means the Commission has about two weeks to get its work done, according to EU officials. EU leaders would debate the plan at a summit starting on Feb. 18.
The move involves establishing that there is "a serious and persistent deficiency" at one or more of Europe's borders to the outside world. A status report on Greece is being drafted.
If a large majority of the EU's 28 nations support it, border controls could be introduced for all people entering the rest of the Schengen zone from Greece, including Greek citizens.