Schengen: what next for the EU?

By Emma Brooks

For several weeks now France and Italy have been holding talks over re-instating border controls due to the large influx of immigrants arriving from North Africa after the Arab spring. They have relentlessly been pushing this item to the top of the agenda, amidst criticism within their own countries, with people fearing this shows a move one step closer to a more far-right agenda, particularly in France. Finally after intense lobbying, the EU is to unveil a new proposal on Wednesday 4th May.

As I am sure many of us can testify, the introduction or rather the removal of all border control via the Schengen agreement in 1995 has been a life changing experience. Being able to travel from one European country to another without needing to present a passport and walking straight off the plane and into the city does have its advantages. It’s a great feeling to be part of the bigger picture that is the EU.

However, the latest influx of immigrants from the Arab spring, most of which arrive in Lampedusa, Italy, has suddenly revived the question of how effective the Schengen area is in times of crisis. What happens once the immigrants have managed to pass the Italian border and are then free to roam all other countries that are members of the Schengen area?

This is precisely the question France is asking, being particularly unhappy to see the flux of immigrants arriving on its territory. Considering that many Tunisian immigrants already have family and friends in France, it seems to be their destination of choice. Following France’s complaints, last week the French authorities were already stopping and searching trains arriving from Italy for illegal immigrants arriving from Lampedusa.

It was a slightly embarrassing if not extreme move, which was criticized by many within France itself. Most people saw it as pandering once more to the extreme right agenda, in a move by Sarkozy to try and regain popularity ahead of next year’s presidential election and gain more sympathy from Marine Le Pen’s voters.

Berlusconi too is under pressure from far-right movements at home, but going along with this type of discourse may not be in their favour. Have they been right to ask for a tighter control of borders within the EU? Or in a time when the EU seems to be going through an identity crisis, are they just adding fuel to the fire?

As it stands, tighter control of the borders within the Schengen area can only be re-instated in time of great crisis temporarily, and requires Member States to notify the Commission. On the other hand, as has been pointed out by some, this is not the first time the EU finds itself with a large number of immigrants on its hands. In 1999 following the crisis in Kosovo, thousands of refugees arrived at the Macedonian border. Though this prompted some questioning by the EU on how to deal with the influx of immigrants, it did not seem to cause quite such an upheaval as it is now, and the immigrants were distributed among receiving countries.

This resulted in the temporary protection directive adopted in 2001, which in the words of the Commission resulted from “the leaders of the European Union acknowledged the need to reach rapid agreement on the issue of temporary protection for displaced persons on the basis of solidarity between Member States”. This sounds pretty much like the current situation, so why can they not reach an agreement today, and why have they not invoked this directive already?

In effect, France and Italy may have a point about the EU needing to share the burden of a massive influx of immigrants a bit better than they are now. But instead of making a huge public row and debate, they should have sought to amend this through perhaps less public channels before making it a national battleground.

Instead, they have indeed played into the game of the far right parties at home, who have long been using the argument of unwanted immigration to gain votes and increase unpopularity of the EU. What we are actually witnessing is fear mongering on an issue that is not in fact as big a problem as it is made to seem. The Arab spring has simply served to create sudden visibility of a large influx of immigrants, much to the advantage of people like Marine Le Pen who use anti-immigration discourse as part of their political agenda.

Tightening border control and making life difficult for EU citizens who enjoy their right to free travel and relocation throughout the EU is not the solution. Instead, France and Italy might want to take a closer look at their internal politics before bringing such a sensitive topic as immigration the top of the agenda.

On the other hand, the EU might want to re-consider its policy on migration not necessarily in light of the latest influx of immigrants, but due to the increasing rise and popularity of far-right parties within its Member States, which are likely to bring these issues to the top of the agenda more often. Once again, the EU needs to learn to show a common rather than a divided stance which damages its credibility.

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