Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Berlusconi and Sarkozy slam on the brakes
The letter was sent after Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi held a summit in Rome yesterday trying to diffuse the diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Italy has demanded help from its EU neighbours, saying that it can't handle the influx of economic refugees floating across the Mediterranean to escape the chaos in North Africa and landing on Italian shores.
Deciding that the EU wasn't acting fast enough to provide assistance, Silvio Berlusconi's government started issuing the migrants with "temporary residence visas" and telling them they could use them to seek work in other EU states, knowing full well that the French-speaking Tunisians and West Africans would go to France. The French were furious, and started stopping trains at the French-Italian border which they suspected of carrying the migrants. Each side is accusing the other of violating the EU's Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel between member states.
To satisfy the Italians, the letter asks for bilateral agreements to be conducted quickly with the new North African governments so they can quickly return the migrants to the countries they were trying to escape. They also want the EU to prepare a "solidarity plan" in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons from Libya.
To satisfy the French, the letter asks the commission to give member states the ability to reimpose controls "in the event of exceptional difficulties in the management of common borders." But the letter seems to imply that this would be for an indetermined period of time, and it does not specify what "exceptional difficulties" are.
Member states are already able to re-establish controls at EU borders but only for limited times and for risks to security. It is unclear whether illegal immigration constitutes a risk to security – again the commission has failed to clarify. In response to the letter the commission said yesterday that next week they will put forward a proposal to draw up "precise conditions" under which member states can temporarily re-establish internal EU border controls. But a commission spokesman stressed that there is no prospect of routine internal border controls returning to continental Europe – contrary to what some media reportswere suggesting Monday.
Despite the fact that Berlusconi and Sarkozy sent a joint letter, the thing they are asking for reflects the deep distrust between the two countries. France wants the ability to re-impose controls because they don't trust Italy and other Southern European countries to police the external EU borders. Likewise, Italy wants assurances from the EU that they will be helped in dealing with migrants, because they don't trust France to help them out when the going gets tough, but instead to just leave them to deal with the migrants on their own and shut their borders.
All in all it is yet another stunning lack of confidence in the EU's core institutions from traditionally euro-friendly member states. Freedom of movement ranks up there with the common currency in being a sacred EU value, a core of the European project. Doubt has now been case on both. Setting up a more solid basis by which the EU and its member states to guard the bloc's external borders probably makes sense and is badly needed. But trying to fix the problem by re-establishing internal borders is contrary to the very idea of Schengen. It also seems like a rather strange solution. After all, the United States doesn't try to deal with difficulties stemming the tide of immigrants on its external borders by setting up temporary passport controls at state borders. Why would that make sense as a solution in Europe?
Of course it's noticeable that both of these leaders are grappling with plummeting popularity ratings, scandals, and a resurgent far right that is competing with them for votes. The far-right French party Front National, surging in the polls, is calling for the complete scrapping of the Schengen passport-free zone. And Berlusconi is now only hanging by a thread in the Italian parliament and is dependent on the support of the virulently anti-immigrant Northern League party – which has also attacked Schengen.
In this era of economic crisis, nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Europe - and scepticism about the European integration project is at an all-time high. Rather than trying to control that public instinct, the European centre-right leaders seem to be half-heartedly embracing it. It is a strategy that could have dire consequences for the future of the European Union.