News Analysis: EU struggles to reinforce Schengen governance

08:45, May 12, 2011      

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by Xinhua writer Miao Xiaojuan

Following an unexpected migrant surge from the North Africa that sparked wide concern in Europe, proposals of reinforcing the border-free Schengen governance and the region's migration control suddenly climbed to the top of the European Union's political agenda.

The latest statement came from President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, who published on Wednesday an open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, reassuring him the Council's attention towards the current migration situation.

The president said that the upcoming summit of EU top leaders in June would address the free movement of persons within the EU, the rules on asylum, the EU's external border controls and its partnership with Mediterranean countries.

"Free movement of persons within the EU is a fundamental ' acquis communautaire' that must be fully preserved," said the president, adding that the Council would focus on "a limited number of essential and urgent questions" at the summit.

Referred to as "free movement of persons within the EU", the 16- year-old Schengen system abolished frontier checks between 22 participating EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, bringing travel convenience in a passport-free zone for both Europeans and holders of Schengen visa issued by any of the 25 countries.

Schengen, hailed as one of the EU's hallmark agreements like the euro, has yet exposed some flaws in the face of 25,000 migrants mainly from Tunisia towards Malta and Italy in the spring, putting them under sudden migratory pressure.

However, despite the joint calls from Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi in late April of revising Schengen so that member states could reintroduce temporary border controls, the European Commission, the EU's executive, made it clear that the Schengen system would only be strengthened.

"Free movement is to Europe what foundations are to buildings. Remove it and the whole structure is undermined," said President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso on Tuesday at a debate with members of the European Parliament (MEPs) during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France.

But the current migration situation in the Mediterranean and resulting pressures highlighted some weakness and uncoordinated reactions by member states in the management of Schengen, Barroso said.

It was Italy that breached the Schengen rules in the first place. Stressed by the flow of migrants and unsatisfied with working alone without enough financial or operational support, Italy had given residence permits to a large number of illegal migrants mainly from Tunisia that would grant them legal access to the whole Schengen area.

Those migrants from Tunisia did not fulfill the conditions of being granted refugee status or residence permits, according to international and EU laws, but it was difficult and complex for Italy to repatriate these illegal migrants.

Angered by Italy's abusing of the Schengen rules, France had temporarily closed a key railway frontier with Italy and introduced extra checks for papers on migrants before the two mended fences in late April.

"We urgently need to reinforce the governance of Schengen and of the external borders," Barroso said.

Currently the implementation of Schengen rules is monitored by member states themselves and on the basis of planned on-the-spot inspections, but the Commission proposed one year ago to establish a monitoring system organized at the EU level and comprising unexpected on-the-spot inspections, as well as an intensified coordination of border surveillance.

In an apparent effort to ease the Franco-Italian pressure and improve the region's general migration control, the Commission also put forward a whole package of proposals last Wednesday, among which the creation at the EU level of a mechanism allowing member states to reintroduce temporary border control got the most attention.

While stressing that it could only be triggered if a member state failed to fulfill its obligations to control its part of the EU's external border, or if there was strong and unexpected migration pressure, the Commission would also be the decision- maker in terms of which member states would be allowed and for how long to reintroduce temporary border control.

And it should be only used as a last resort and in truly critical situations, as Barroso said earlier.

The proposal faced strong opposition from some MEPs who were concerned that it could go against the fundamental principle of free movement, while some others agreed that the current Schengen system was unequipped to cope with emerging new challenges.

Barroso said that the best way to avoid putting Schengen at risk was exactly to reinforce the rules of its governance and clarify some of its aspects.

Experts believed that the Commission was trying to find a balance between the free movement and the limitation of free movement by keeping the final decision at the EU level instead of the national level.

"The principle is free movement and every limitation of it has to be interpreted in a very restrictive way," said Yves Pascouau, a senior migration policy analyst with the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Center.

Current Schengen rules allow member states to restore internal border checks in case of "serious threat to public order or internal security", which are both nation-level but not EU-level issues. Member states are supposed to notify the Commission, which also holds the right to ask the European Court of Justice for a check.

But management of external borders was an EU issue and any difficulty arising in that field should be dealt with at the EU level, said Pascouau.

The Commission also pushed in its package for a common asylum policy, a deal with Tunisia to take back illegal migrants, and a mobility policy towards high-level migrants from the Mediterranean countries, among others.

Notably, the frontline Rome had reached a deal with Tunisia government to prevent illegal immigration in April. On Wednesday, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni offered his Tunisian counterpart Harbib Essid four patrol boats that could be used to patrol its coasts and stop migrants leaving for Italy.

With huge debate foreseeable on the way, all the proposals from the Commission would be discussed at an extraordinary meeting of the EU's home affairs council on Thursday and then submitted to the European Council and the Parliament for final approval.

Source: Xinhua
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