The Schengen Area consists of a contiguous group of twenty-five European countries that have agreed by treaty to suspend border controls and travel restrictions within their common territory. Five member states of the European Union — Britain, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus — are not signatories of the Schengen Agreement, while three non-EU countries — Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland — have signed on.
The weakness of the Schengen provisions was highlighted last year during the Camp of the Saints crisis in the Mediterranean. Libyans and Tunisians who illegally gained access to Europe by landing on the island of Lampedusa were given temporary residence permits by the Italian authorities. Once they had these valuable pieces of paper in hand, they were theoretically able to travel wherever they wished within the Schengen Area. Since Italy was not their intended final destination — France, Britain, Germany, and Sweden being more highly prized for their lavish welfare benefits — many of the newcomers immediately attempted to travel northwards.
Handing out residence permits was a somewhat cynical ploy on the part of the Italian authorities, who obviously hoped to hand off their cultural enrichment problems to other parts of Europe. The French were having none of it, however, and sent the Tunisian interlopers straight back to Italy, Schengen or not.
The interior ministers of the Schengen Area have now attempted to codify last year’s ad-hoc (and not strictly legal) suspension of the agreement by proposing a controversial “emergency” amendment that would permit a return to border controls between member states, on a temporary basis, when required.
Many thanks to Hermes for translating this report from Süddeutsche Zeitung:
Schengen Agreement: Interior ministers of the EU unite on the issue of emergency border controls
This is thought to be the “final solution” and an “emergency mechanism”, but countries are allowed to decide based on their own estimations. The interior ministers of the EU have decided on a reform of the Schengen Agreement. It makes possible the reestablishment of border controls for a maximum term of two years. The EU Parliament has already announced its opposition to the new rules.
Open borders — this is one of the most important achievements of the European Union. Customs controls and barriers were successively abolished after 1995; people can move freely across Europe. Controls are enforced simply at the outer borders.
The Schengen Agreement is a resolution which many EU countries have signed. Its name comes from a small place in Luxembourg by the river Mosel at the “Dreilaendereck” (Three-Country-Region) between France, Luxembourg and Germany.
But now there could be a setback in the age of Schengen — at least temporarily: The interior ministers of the EU countries have decided on the possibility to reintroduce the border controls in Europe if they see that the functioning of the Schengen area is under threat.
At their meeting in Luxembourg the interior ministers agreed on a draft version of the revision of the Schengen Agreement, by which they are heading for a confrontation with Brussels. According to it, national governments should be able to decide on the reestablishment of their border controls based on their own estimations. The EU Commission wanted to communalize this kind of decision.
In addition to this, an “emergency mechanism” is proposed to be introduced, according to which individual member states could strengthen their borders as a “last solution” in case another country does not control its borders properly.
This measure could be applied by member states for a maximum of two years. The commission also failed in its intention to gain a greater say regarding the duration (of this new measure). The European Parliament must now discuss the draft, against which it has already announced its resistance during the preliminary stages.
The debate over Schengen reform has been going on for months. This was prompted by last year’s Arab Spring, which caused thousands of refugees from North Africa to flee to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. In the east, illegal immigrants poured in through the porous border between Turkey and Greece. Some 55,000 people were caught while trying to enter illegally into Schengen territory through this hot point.