Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Berlusconi and Sarkozy slam on the brakes

Usually it's the Northern European countries that are the ones clammoring for rollbacks on EU integration. But in a strange twist this week it's the reliable core stalwarts of France and Italy that are agitating for a step back in the EU integration project. The leaders of the two countries sent a letter to the European Commission yesterday asking for the ability to re-establish border controls between Schengen states in 'exceptional circumstances'.

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.

France may or may not have violated the Schengen rules by stopping the trains. The commission has not provided a clear answer on this issue. And Italy may or may not have violated Schengen rules by issuing the migrants with non-compliant "visas".

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.


Captain Eurotrash said...

It's quite obvious which way it's going to go. As you write, the idea of policing internal borders to deal with external migration makes no sense, and restricting freedom of movement even a little bit is not going to happen. That leaves only one way to deal with the immigration problem: Adequately protecting the external borders. It's also obvious that the countries where most immigrants enter can't handle it alone (they've said so themselves repeatedly), so they're going to need assistance from Frontex.

Alternatively, one could say that immigration really isn't that much of a problem but the distribution and settlement of immigrants is. Again, the only solution left will be for a more federal type of response where responsibility for immigration matters will be handled at the EU level because we can see that when left at the national level it's obvious that nobody wants them unless they're forced to take them. Though the idea of immigration being handled at the EU level could open up a can of worms with questions about citizenship etc.

Wilfred the dog said...

As a journalist you should be aware that the word for the equipment that slows something down is BRAKES not breaks. Spellcheckers are no substitute for knowledge.