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Shackled by Schengen – time for a policy rethink?

Civitas, 28 April 2011

The civil strife in North Africa is having a dramatic effect on one of the EU’s most ambitious, yet controversial, policies – the Schengen agreement. With unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving at its southern borders, the EU must revamp its Schengen policy or risk fuelling tensions between member states.

barbed wire

Since Tunisia’s President was ousted earlier this year, Lampedusa (a tiny Italian island) and Malta have been struggling to cope with the influx of migrants arriving daily at their shores. This migration crisis has been exacerbated by the Schengen policy, under which the ‘member state of entry’ must process the migrant, essentially absolving the internal member states of any involvement. Controlling a strategically important border for the 25 Schengen members is a heavy burden for Italy and Malta to shoulder alone, and seemingly unfair when most of the migrants arriving at their shores are heading for other EU states. Mounting tensions between Italy and France have been particularly noticeable; with most Tunisian migrants aiming for France, Italy has, inadvertently, become Tunisia’s gateway to France. Yet France has repeatedly shrugged off any ‘burden sharing’ responsibility.

Relations between Italy and France deteriorated further with Prime Minister Berlusconi’s decision to grant thousands of temporary visas to Tunisian migrants arriving in Italy, most of whom had the intention of heading straight to France. France accused Italy of abusing the spirit of the Schengen treaty (specifically the free movement of people aspect) and retaliated by threatening to suspend Schengen measures and reinstate border controls, forcing migrants back to Italy. ‘If a failing state controls other countries’ borders, what do we do?’ complained President Sarkozy.

It isn’t illegal to reinstate border controls per se if the measures are temporary (up to 30 days) and the member state is confronted with a national threat or a matter of internal security; in fact it has been done by France before (after the London terrorist attack in July 2005). However, so far the EU does not view the current crisis as such a threat. The EU has deployed Joint Operation EPN Hermes Extension 2011 to help the Italian border police and has increased available funds, however, Italy’s call for a stepped up or burden sharing response to the ‘humanitarian emergency’ has, so far, been ignored by both the EU and other member states.

On this occasion, President Sarkozy eventually agreed to follow Italy’s decision to issue the visas, but his lament highlights that the Schengen agreement leaves states ill-equipped to deal with  migration in the modern world. After a month of bickering and ‘passing the buck’ between the two leaders, a meeting on Tuesday 26th April proved a moment of reunification, as they agreed to push for Schengen reforms to better meet 21st century demands.

‘All treaties inevitably grow old’, the Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini explained to Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper. ‘The Berlin Wall of North Africa has come down and the context in which these treaties, and I think also the Lisbon Treaty, were written has changed radically.’

Meeting in Rome, the two leaders put their differences aside to propose a joint letter to the EU on amending the Schengen agreement. Central to the French and Italian demands are calls for increased member state involvement in the formation of Schengen policy, including the ability to activate border controls in situations of ‘exceptional difficulties’. The two countries have also criticised the EU’s Schengen evaluation mechanism.

Less than 24 hours later Greece (a country with its own migration difficulties) praised these proposals, and soon other member states, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Malta, had also voiced their support for the joint letter.

The EU Commission will present its response on 4th May.  It’s vital the EU gets this right, especially as the strain between border and non-border states (and non – Schengen members, such as the UK and Ireland, who are implored to show ‘solidarity’ with other member states) will only increase with the imminent accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the zone. As President Sarkozy upraised: ‘We want Schengen to survive, but to survive, Schengen must be reformed.’

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