Schengen R.I.P.?

Free movement of goods; free movement of ideas; free movement of money; free movement of people: these all used to be points of pride for the European Union, milestone-accomplishments as it succeeded in bridging national differences to create unprecedented levels of cooperation between European states. And along with that, unprecedented levels of trust; all of those freedoms required each participant state to have confidence that the others would not let them down and cause them to regret such openness.

Now “freedom of movement” once again seems to be under peril, as can be seen in today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung exclusive article Berlin and Paris want to bring back border controls. This is all about the EU’s Schengen Agreement, begun in 1985 and expanded since then to include most, if not all, member-states in a regime where travellers are not checked at “internal” EU borders between member-states but, on the other hand, “external” borders between member-states and non-member-states are policed ever more carefully, since someone getting past those then has free access to other states party to the Agreement.

Or at least those external borders are supposed to be carefully policed. In reality, doubts have arisen as to whether this really is the case, particularly when it comes to asylum-seekers making their way from North Africa across the Mediterranean, usually to Italy. When the pressure got turned up last year due to the Libyan civil war and many thousands more attempted this boat trip than usual, French confidence that the Italians were performing their proper border-control duties disappeared, to the point that border controls were reimposed for a few days on those countries’ “internal” common EU border – in violation of the Schengen agreement, of course. Denmark last year also chose unilaterally to reimpose controls on its border with Germany for a while.

But those instances were, well, illegal, temporary floutings of treaty obligations to let off some internal political steam over perceived lax border control. The new joint German-French proposal revealed by an official letter which the Süddeutsche Zeitung got hold of would be something different: the right to reimpose border controls as policy, as something the Schengen Area rules would explicitly permit. What both interior ministers of these governments propose is that any government gain the power unilaterally to reimpose border controls for 30 days if it judges that lapsed conditions at the external border controls warrant that. Then the question of whether to keep such “internal” border controls in place after that initial 30-day period would be something for the European Council (i.e. the EU forum of national governments), not the EU Commission, to decide.

They would like this “mechanism” to be brought up for discussion at an EU interior ministers meeting scheduled for next week. There is no guarantee that it will be agreed to, of course, but frustration at the porous state of the EU’s external borders extends beyond just Germany and France. Then there is always the option for brazen illegal violation of the Schengen terms, as shown previously by France and Denmark; it’s a good question whether this attempt to put a mechanism in place to make such moves legal is really something to applaud.

Already this Franco-German initiative has prompted coverage in other media outlets, including Germany’s Der Spiegel:

Schengen-Abkommen: Deutschland und Frankreich wollen Europa abriegeln…



There the terms of the interior ministers’ proposal are detailed along with a frank illustration at the very top of just what the problem is in the first place: a crowded boatload of black refugees, headed for Europe. The story has also been picked up in the Czech press:

Berlín a Paříž chtějí v "Schengenu" umožnit kontroly až na 30 dní



Finally, there is good English-language discussion of this from the FT:

New borders inside Europe? A Franco-German push


FT’s Brussels blog

Here the FT’s Peter Spiegel attributes the fact that this initiative is happening now to efforts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to try to turn around his dire re-election prospects – although, in that case, it’s also significant that the proposal has full German support as well. The FT writer also targets Greece, and not Italy, as the latest and biggest laggard at defending the EU’s common external border attracting everyone else’s ire (i.e. this time for reasons not directly having to do with finance!).

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