European Affairs


But the fear, often exploited by anti-immigrant populists, has left the EU grappling with demands for more restrictions on its Schengen zone of borderless, passport-free travel among the 25 countries that allows anyone who reaches one Schengen member to travel freely to all the others.

As a result, the issue of Schengen – and whether or how it needs to be fixed -- will be high on the agenda at the EU summit meeting on June 24.

Behind this debate is a nexus of issues. The economic crisis has heightened anti-immigrant feelings across the EU. In the circumstance, most EU governments, worried about seeing the far right play on populist fears, are trying to protect their political flank by making concessions on tightening border protection, at least in times of crisis. Legally, there is some ground for change because when the Lisbon Treaty came into effect, it provided for more “special exceptions” to the Schengen rules;  mainly allowing nations to re-impose border controls temporarily in special situations.

These elements boiled up in a political crisis in the EU when Europeans were faced with the prospect of Libya disgorging a horde of refugees – not only Libyans and other Arabs but also Africans who have been allowed by Moammar Gaddafi to live in Libya as an alternative to try slipping into Europe. The prospect of this influx triggered near-panic in Italy and Malta, the closest EU landing points – and also fearful resistance across Europe from France to Denmark and Britain to any suggestion that Arabs and Africans seeking asylum might be shared out among EU member states or even might be able to find their way onto the soil of other EU states because of Schengen’s end to frontier controls. EU countries are already grappling with ethnic tensions around their existing immigrant minorities and feel saturated with asylum-seekers. So the prospect of more Arab and African arrivals was politically explosive, especially at a time when social services in many EU countries were being cut back as a result of economic austerity measures.

In fact, the problem turned out to be one mainly of fear, not flows of people. The actual number of refugees turning up in southern Europe has been fewer than 50,000 people. “Out of more than 700,000 migrants displaced by events in the western Arab states of North Africa, around 30,000 (four to five percent) have attempted to reach Europe,” according to demography expert Philippe Fargues. This number is of course enormous in proportion to the size of the Italian island (Lampedusa), a short boat ride from Libya, where they entered Europe, but it is much less significant considering the size of the Schengen area. (The other 95 percent have headed mainly for African and Asian destinations, according to Mr. Fargues in an article, “Voice after Exit: Revolution and Migration in the Arab World,” published in Migration Information Source of the Migration Policy Institute.

Fargues also pinpoints what seems to have been a blind-spot in EU thinking about how to pre-empt illegal immigration from North Africa. “Containing irregular migration by subcontracting to North African governments the control of entry into the Schengen area has led Europe to look away from human-rights violations. Until revolt shook Libya, Colonel Gaddafi was regarded by European states as a responsible partner for policing migration; so much so that in the first days of the uprising in his country, he was able to confidently warn that ‘thousands of African migrants will invade Europe if there is nobody to stop them in Libya.’”

Specifically, Fargues is referring to a multi-billion-euro package of “aid” that Italy negotiated as payment for Libya as a quid pro quo for Gaddafi’s agreement that illegal African and Arab immigrants could be shipped back to Libya by the EU – that obviously collapsed as Tripoli lost the ability (and desire) to control its own territory in ways that served the EU.

Overall, the refugee scare (and potential crisis still) from North Africa is an episode that has pushed some ethnic tensions and simmering concerns about open borders and lack of enforcement in the EU to fever pitch – and hastened questions about curbing the Schengen terms of free movement to the center of European concerns. As refugees started arriving (and fears mounted), French border police at one point swooped on a train crossing the border from Italy. Denmark has proceeded to re-impose sporadic passport checks. And Britain, which has never joined Schengen, has launched intense bilateral consultations with France on better cooperation aimed to prevent human smuggling and illegal entries across the English Channel via the Eurostar.

The worst flash point at the peak of the panic involved Italy and France. EU treaties stipulate that whatever country receives migrants will also process their asylum applications and look after the migrants during the adjudication of their status. But that system clearly creates extra risks and burdens for countries on the EU periphery – in the east at the time of Communism’s collapse and now in the south due to turmoil in North Africa. So far, however, there has been no reform to provide for more equitable EU-wide “burden-sharing” in coping with refugee flows. So when Italy, which like most of the rest of Europe, does not like mass migration, saw the first arrivals on Lampedusa, it reacted with its own bureaucratic devices. With not-uncharacteristic slyness, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, issued six-month residency permits to 8,000 of the newcomers, thus allowing them free movement within most of the EU (ie the Schengen area). The refugees – at that point, largely Tunisians, who are French-speaking -- headed for France, turning Mr. Berlusconi’s political problem into a headache for French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. He responded in April by re-establishing Franco-Italian border controls: it is a brief gesture, but it caught the attention of other EU leaders. Under Schengen rule, countries may re-man their borders only if there is a “grave threat to public order or internal security” — for example, to control hoodlums traveling to international soccer matches. Now that loophole was widened considerably, and Sarkozy and Berlusconi drove home their point by writing a joint letter in April to the European Commission that called for suspending the Schengen agreements in cases of big refugee influxes.

This was called “Europe’s Arizona moment,” by American (and eurosceptic) conservative analyst Christopher Caldwell. Indeed, the attacks on Schengen (like Arizona’s move to impose its own state regulations on immigration to supersede U.S. Federal laws) triggered a political firestorm in the EU, including vehement criticism from the left. Strong words came at Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the Greens in the European Parliament. Speaking at the European Institute in Washington, he said: “I think what has been happening in Europe in the last month or so is quite frightening as a political problem. A lot of governments are frightened the European electorate is moving to the right,” he told the EI audience on May 25.

He amplified his view along the lines that emerged in this slightly edited (for clarity) version of his remarks. He started with a rhetorical question about whether threat of  North African refugee flows could qualify as a big enough threat to justify changing Schengen: Can this [meet the criteria to] become a “critical moment” – meaning fewer than 50,000 Tunisians, Libyans coming to Italy?  Compare that to the Bosnian war. When it was very intensive, Germany decided – the only country, the other Europeans didn’t – to give temporary visas for Bosnian refugees.  They got more than 100,000 in Germany. Now with the European framework of Schengen, you have this possibility of temporary visas – maybe for 45,000 people in a Europe of 500 million. It doesn’t sound like a real problem to me.

In concluding this point, Cohn-Bendit conceded that “there is a [political] problem, but you must find a solution via solidarity – and in any event not by rejecting the free movement of people inside the EU.”

As all sides agree, the dispute has brought to a head some fundamental questions about the Schengen accord -- a pillar of the single market providing the free movement of goods, services and people in the EU.  Named for the town in Luxembourg where the final agreement was signed in 2008 after years of negotiations, it now covers 25 countries, including three non-EU countries (Iceland, Norway and Switzerland).  The main EU hold-out is Britain, where successive governments have opted out of the accord.

Most EU leaders, together with a majority in the European Parliament, oppose any major restrictions to Schengen, which they see as a core value of European integration – both as a potent symbol (ranking close to the euro) and a fundamental reality of European solidarity.

In this Schengen debate, a related issue is the question of admitting Bulgaria and Romania to join the border-free zone. In December last year, France and Germany wrote a joint letter warning against the “premature” accession of the two countries to the border-free area, citing corruption and crime. Jogging the process, the European Parliament voted massively on June 8 in favor of their admission.

But it is a non-binding opinion, and EU interior ministers who met on June 9 finally decided to postpone such a decision until September. The Commission is due to report in July on progress against organized crime in these countries. The likely compromise is that the two countries will be given an entry date this fall – when temporary border controls are to be allowed in more cases for example if, as often raised as a possibility, Bulgaria saw a sudden influx of immigrants materializing on its Turkish border.

The overall commitment to Schengen may actually emerge reinforced from the present turmoil. At its peak in April, EU leaders felt they were facing a triple threat: a bubbling cauldron of human desperation among refugees, xenophobic demagoguery in their domestic politics and a structural political challenge for the EU over Schengen as a potential new flashpoint for the simmering EU-wide debate about immigration.

That had already been calmed by the time EU Interior Ministers had an emergency meeting in Brussels on May 28. Participants agreed that the Schengen system should be preserved, according to Hungarian Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, who chaired the talks in Brussels.  “There was a clear position from every minister: the free movement of people is one of the Union's key achievements and we have to maintain and safeguard this,” he said. A first step in this direction was taken in early June when EU interior ministers endorsed a European Commission proposal to establish clear criteria for countries in the Schengen area to cite in invoking the measures of exception that would allow them to restore border controls. “We need to have increased clarity in rules, in order to avoid unilateral and disproportionate steps by member states,” said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström about the Commission proposal.

The biggest hold-out – seeking an almost permanent “exception,” is Denmark, whose coalition government depends on the support of an anti-immigrant party. To justify this, Copenhagen has cited the need to fight human trafficking and other mafia activities. If these worries seem bogus to many other Europeans, most EU officials also believe that the Danish government’s actual enforcement will be light and rare in practice.  “There will be some spot checks by flying squads on passports, but not much more – and no fundamental change in the Schengen paradigm,” predicts a European Commission official.

But if Europeans want to keep Schengen intact, what can they do to protect it from rising tide of fears about it among the EU countries’ population? Critics say that the Schengen area is routinely porous in letting illegal aliens get inside the fence around the EU. And, as the recent crisis shows, it does not work effectively to distribute the burdens that fall unevenly on countries along the EU’s southern edge.

One answer – an “Arizona-style solution” involving a police “fence,” as Caldwell suggests -- would be to beef up the woefully underfunded European border patrol, Frontex. With a budget of only 88 million euros (about $128 million), it is cobbled together out of various nations’ unneeded naval vessels and military personnel. That might help reassure European citizens that efforts are under way to ensure that their borders are reasonably well protected.

Other fixes might be more acceptable in the long run. One is involves the rule changes and tighter definitions of “exceptional circumstances” that could make Schengen more flexible in emergencies. Politically, a move in that direction can perhaps help defuse general anti-immigrant moods in Europe and weaken the impact of fear-mongering populist movements about laxity on immigrants – a dynamic that has also been visible in Arizona and more broadly across U.S. electoral politics.  But it would essentially preserve Schengen, as most Europeans want.

In practice, key EU governments still see their best protection against the migratory pressure on their countries in policy approaches other than more Frontex and higher police walls on their frontiers.

Instead, they see more promise in better articulated policies of limited immigration, which can bring skills and tax revenues from specially qualified individuals from countries on the EU periphery.

And, of course, the EU remains committed to its view that development aid to Africa can help develop economies where people want to stay home and no longer feel compelled to try sneaking into Europe to find a job.


--- By European Affairs