Friday, 24 June 2011

Commission laments 'rising xenophobia' as Schengen unravels

The June summit of EU leaders has wrapped up here in Brussels – the blockades are being removed from the streets and the whirl of helicopters overheard is slowly starting to dissipate. As expected, the council voted to establish a "safeguard mechanism" in the Schengen passport-free travel zone that would allow member states to reintroduce internal EU border controls in exceptional circumstances.

The final text adopted today says the border checks should only be reintroduced "as a very last resort" in a "truly critical situation where a member state is no longer able to comply with its obligations under the Schengen rules as concerns the prevention of illegal immigration of third country nationals."

Such a mechanism was demanded by Italy and France earlier this year when the two got into a row over illegal immigration happening as a result of the Arab spring. France accused Italy of deliberately sending Tunisian migrants to France and issuing them bogus identity cards because they wanted to get them out of Italy as soon as possible. France said it should be allowed to set up border controls with neighboring countries who are failing in their duties to protect the EU external border. But existing rules forbid member states from imposing border controls at internal EU borders. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi wholeheartedly agreed, as if to say "Yes, we're completely incompetent. Please allow France to set up protections against us."

Despite its emphasis on the "last resort" nature of these new controls, the text adopted today does not specify what would constitute such an emergency situation, and it leaves it up to the member state rather than the commission to decide whether the given situation meets the threshold.

Many are worried that today's agreement is the beginning of the end of the Schengen passport-free zone (pictured left), as countries will start re-establishing border posts in a bid to convince voters that they are taking a hard line against illegal immigration. This could stoke the mistrust of the neighboring states they are setting up border checks against, who in turn may set up their own controls. Then like a game of dominoes, it won't be long until everyone has re-established their borders and Europe appears to be in a state of permanent emergency.

Small Eastern European member states were reportedly the most wary of this decision taken today, fearing that after they worked so hard to enter the Schengen Zone it's about to be dismantled. But the large Western member states seem almost unanimous in their support for the move, and they appear to have intimidated the Eastern European states into towing the line.

With this unanimity, there is little the European Commission can do but acquiesce to the council's demand. But there is real concern in Berlaymont over where this is going. Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a press statement ahead of the summit:
"Solidarity, tolerance, and mutual respect between countries and people - I am saddened and concerned to see that these values risk losing respect and support around Europe. In my areas of responsibility – asylum, migration, integration, and border cooperation – I can see that xenophobia is on the rise. Developments this spring illustrate the situation quite clearly."
Malmstrom also lamented that while the member states are devoting so much time to a bizarrely ineffective solution to the migration caused by the Arab Spring (why would internal EU border controls keep North Africans from crossing the EU's external border?) national leaders refuse to have any serious discussion over reforming their asylum policies. Each member state has a different asylum policy, and as the Arab Spring has displaced people trying to escape from war, most European nations have refused to take them in in any significant number. This even as EU member states voice support for the people of North Africa. "We have to acknowledge that war has consequences, and that words are of little worth if they are not also followed by solidarity in action," Malmstrom said.

For example, more than one million people have fled the violence in Libya since the war there broke out, but just 15,000 of them have made their way to the EU. Out of that number, EU member states have agreed to grant asylum to a total of just 800 people. Norway, which is not part of the EU, has already agreed to take in 300 just on its own.

The commission wants to establish an EU asylum policy that could spread out asylum seekers in a way that wouldn't overwhelm any single member state. Malta has been desperately pleading for this as well as the tiny island is overrun with people from north Africa washing up on its shores. But the national leaders have refused to even begin discussions on the idea - nor have they been willing to entertain the idea of an EU border force being in charge of Europe's external borders. Instead, they have been demanding an increase in security at internal borders. As public policy goes, this has all unfolded in a very bizarre way.


Captain Kid said...

What a backlash... If Schengen was dismantled, this would be the end of our European dream.

Captain Eurotrash said...

I'm not sure if this is a typo or deliberate, but your third-to-last paragraph says Maelstrom instead of Malmström ;)

Dagmawi Elehu said...

"it leaves it up to the member state rather than the commission to decide whether the given situation meets the threshold. "

I'm not getting that from the published document. It describes a mechanism with "objective criteria [and} a common assessment" (item 22, 2nd § of the European Council conclusions). To me it seems more like a "community" decision rather than a unilateral one. It appears that commissioner Malmström (whom you misspelt a few times in the text) is also of that view. As it says in the last sentence of her latest blog post (my translation):
"It is to be clear criteria and a collective decision, it says, and
the commission is invited to produce such a proposal by september."