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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.
In recent months Portugal has been the third country to effectively request a bailout from the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – this after the former government’s “austerity” proposals had come up against a brick wall in the form of the Portuguese Parliament. With outside intervention now inevitable, the new government’s hands will be tied in any case.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the continent, the Finns have announced their apparent opposition to continually bailing out their
Southern partners. The impressive showing of the True Finns party means that it will now likely sit as the main opposition in the Parliament and raises serious questions about the political will in the Member States when it comes to propping up failing economies.
Moreover, talks of Greece “restructuring” its debt are hardly reassuring to Eurozone ears. And if Spain were to join the debtors, it would really put the Eurozone in a downward spiral.
That’s for the euro – but there are wider concerns within the EU which are causing the 27 nation bloc to strain at the edges.
The EU’s budget is being called into question by the net contributors, including the UK and France, who are arguing for “austerity” to be transferred from the national to the EU level and reject any significant increase.
In the opposite corner is a larger group of countries, many of whom are net recipients of EU funds for their regions which lag behind the EU average – and the European Commission.
The battle for the budget has been a perennial highlight of Brussels, but with the current economic and financial context and voters disenchanted, the stakes are higher.
Meanwhile at the EU’s southern fringes there continues to be concern about a supposed flood of immigrants from North Africa following the region’s “Arab Spring”. Once again, the EU’s solidarity is being called into question, with Franc unilaterally closing its border with Italy to prevent what it sees as a possible influx of French-speaking migrants making their way northwards.
Further north, Denmark also decided to reinstall border controls, ostensibly to reduce crime, but in practice to appease the Danish People’s Party, an anti-immigrant party which the government relies on for support.
Previously EU crises had either been bound up in Treaty reform (e.g. the failed Constitution referenda) or in the EU’s lack of competitiveness on the world stage.
Today, the EU seems to be tearing itself up from the inside. Paradoxically, the deeper you integrate, the more likely fissures will open up (e.g. Schengen and the Eurozone). The test for the EU will be whether it can withstand the tensions raging from within, rather than without.
When you live inside the EU bubble, you sometimes forget that there is a world outside the EU. This is why holidays are great, because they allow you to escape all the ordinary procedures, discover a new country, and get a better understanding of its political landscape.
In mid-April some representatives of The Lobby decided to spend two weeks in Egypt, and the impressions gathered through conversations with locals met in restaurants, trains, planes, or just in the street, together with some very good lectures, were fascinating.
Unfortunately, there is much less enthusiasm about the “Arab Spring” than there was before.
Whereas one can only respect a country whose people risked their lives to attain their freedom, there is also a certain amount of trepidation when one considers the enormous expectations these people have towards their future new government.
The causes of the 25-January revolution, as the Egyptians call it, are deeply rooted. Some reasons for this Egyptian malaise are the enormous social inequalities, the lack of jobs corresponding to the qualifications of young graduates, a climate of corruption, religious fundamentalism, rising food prices, and, last but not least, the lack of political liberties.
When looking into the future, there is a sea of uncertainties: will the new government and President be able to tackle some of these problems? What about the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, and in particular the Salafist movement? How can democracy work in a country with an illiteracy rate of around 40%?
Yet, I remain cautiously optimistic: Egypt is a wonderful country with a rich cultural and religious diversity, and the awakening of a sense of citoyenneté during these last months demonstrates that there is a reason to believe that Egypt may successfully manage its regime change.