Handling the Euro-crisis demonstrates the unity of the continent, but when it comes to open borders and immigration, European leaders show a different face.
No more queues and controls at the borders of European countries – Schengen makes it possible. For years, numerous holiday-makers and workers have been able to travel without barriers across the majority of the continent.
This week however French President Nicolas Sarkozy attacked this so-called “freedom of movement” by threatening that France will leave Schengen, should the Agreement not be renewed within a year after his possible re-election in May.
Sarkozy’s call is in line with other anti-immigration rhetoric used in national campaigns. However this current debate over border controls has been brewing for months and shows that Europe is threatening to fall back into old patterns.
We might recall a year ago, in the wake of the Arab Spring, that thousands of refugees fled to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave the refugees a six-month residence permit, which enabled them to travel freely throughout Europe.
This in turn made Sarkozy furious, and he decided to re-introduce controls on the Italian border.
Last year Denmark toyed with reintroducing permanent customs controls, and the Dutch are so worried that at the beginning of the year they established an automatic monitoring system at border crossings.
Finally, several EU Member States are still blocking Romania’s and Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen area due to deficiencies in the judiciary and the fight against organised crime.
At the end of last year EU Justice Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced that she wants to reform the Schengen Agreement, which she called “one of the most cherished achievements of the EU”.
The European Commission wants to put in place a more efficient and EU-based approach to Schengen cooperation, allowing Member States to independently introduce border controls only as long as the Commission agrees beforehand.
Many states consider these proposals as an attack on their sovereignty.
President-hopeful Sarkozy also blamed the bad “Eurocrats” for deciding over France’s sovereignty, while seeming to forget that the European Parliament together with the Council – including the French government – will first examine those upcoming proposals.
The debates show that the Schengen issue is one of the topics which are (ab-)used by politicians who like to stoke fears among their fellow citizens and blame over-technocratic Brussels.
One can only hope that the Schengen reform will take place in an atmosphere isolated from any populism and campaigning strategies and will result in an improved framework resistant to misapplication.
The Commission has yet to respond to Sarkozy’s statements, saying it does not comment on national campaigning.
However, in order to contradict populist claims and for the sake of explanations and communications – maybe there is a need for response.