By Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states took a new step toward a two-year suspension of their open-borders zone on Wednesday as the bloc's executive again rebuked them for failing to act on agreements to stem irregular migration.
The European Commission, in reports ahead of an EU summit next week when leaders will again discuss how to resolve a crisis that has set them against each other, renewed its pleas for Greece and Italy to speed up the establishment of processing centers to register refugees and deport illegal migrants.
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos praised Athens and Rome for a "spectacular" increase in how many arrivals they are fingerprinting but said they were still falling short.
He said other member states were also failing to stand by front-line Mediterranean counterparts and take in more than a few hundred asylum seekers from Italy and Greece under an EU scheme that stipulated the relocation of at least 160,000.
"We need urgently to shift gears," Avramopoulos told a news conference, saying he had written to each of the bloc's 28 interior ministers spelling out what more they needed to do.
The arrival last year of over 1.1 million migrants, many of them refugees from Syria, and their subsequent chaotic overland journeys across Europe, where most have ended up in Germany, has strained the passport-free Schengen zone to breaking point - with numerous member states reimposing temporary border checks.
The European Commission said on Wednesday that returning to internal border controls on a systematic and long-term basis could cost as much as 18 billion euros ($20.15 billion) in total direct costs alone, excluding second-wave effects.
In an effort to at least maintain the structure within its legal framework, EU officials and diplomats are working to give governments a legal right to extend temporary internal border checks to which Germany and others resorted as an emergency.
The legal basis for some of these expires in mid-May and so the EU has begun a process to trigger an unprecedented use of a longer-term derogation within the Schengen treaty by that time.
The Commission ruled that an inspection in Greece found that it was seriously deficient in protecting its section of Schengen's external border, a key condition for allowing other states to then declare a need to impose controls of their own.
Envoys from the member states in Brussels agreed on Wednesday to a new set of measures Greece must take to remedy matters. Assuming those are formalized by governments on Friday during a finance ministers meeting in Brussels, that will begin a three-month countdown to a deadline few expect Athens can meet to put its frontier controls in perfect order.
Should it fail, member states will then have a right under the Schengen code to reinstitute border checks within Schengen for up to six months, renewable three times.
(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski and Tom Koerkemeier; Editing by Mark Heinrich)