Walking the border tightrope

A more open Europe with tighter external borders: in a bid to establish a consensus on the issue of the reform of the Schengen Agreement, the EU home affairs commissioner has been forced to walk a tightrope. However, Dagens Nyhter argues that the proposals presented by Cecilia Malmström succeed in striking a delicate balance.

Published on 5 May 2011 at 15:39

Ready to take up a challenge, and expressing herself in a firm and steady voice, on May 4, Cecilia Malmström presented the European Commission’s proposals for “better management of migration to the EU,” which met with numerous sceptical questions from the European press.

In providing her carefully thought-out answers, the home affairs commissioner was keen to defend a number of fundamental principles for the future orientation of EU migration policy — and in so doing, she brought a much needed clarity to the stormy debate over the fate of the North African refugees, which has sparked tensions in Europe over the last few weeks.

Although only a limited number of boats had crossed the Mediterranean, the quantity of incoming refugees was nonetheless sufficient to prompt a clash between Italy in France in early April. Thereafter, the two countries decided to submit a joint demand for the reinstatement of controls on internal borders within the Schengen area, which is supposed to allow for free passage between member states. At that point, it was clear that if Europe’s political leaders continued to react in this way, “fortress Europe” would be increasingly impregnable from the outside, and increasingly fragmented on the inside.

The few months that preceded these developments had placed Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa under unprecedented pressure. And in this context, it was evident that greater European cooperation to welcome refugees and to provide aid to people displaced by the Arab spring made obvious good sense.

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At the same time, it was important for the EU to avoid an excessive response. Xenophobic political movements in Europe, which are increasingly powerful, are only too eager to dramatise the current situation so as to halt border traffic in all directions.

As it stands, the vast majority of those who fled the conflict in North Africa have been taken in by neighbouring countries. Only 25,000 from a total 650,000 have in fact arrived in Europe. And only a few thousand of those, the ones who have actually applied for asylum, will be given permission to remain in EU once the threat to their safety has been evaluated.

This is why Cecilia Malmström’s message was sorely needed. The home affairs commissioner launched a call for a reasoned and measured response, and reminded the European union of its duty to provide a welcome for those who have been forced to flee persecution.

Cecilia Malmström acknowledged that France and Italy have a point, and argued that countries in the Schengen Area should be authorised to reinstate border controls, but under only under very specific circumstances.

However, she was also at pains to point out that the EU needs more workers, and for this reason, it should allow legal immigration from North Africa. At the same time, she proposed to reinforce security at the EU’s external borders and to put an end to human trafficking and illegal immigration.

In short, she was forced to walk a tightrope, and to push for an open Europe with a generous asylum policy that is nonetheless protected by tight controls on its external borders — which have to be fully compliant with existing legislation and humanitarian standards. And these measures must be implemented, otherwise the current system will at risk of collapse.

Yesterday, the European Police organisation, Europol, reported that human traffickers are taking advantage of routes that pass through Greece to import their victims into the greater EU. It also noted that last year was marked by a significant upsurge in illegal immigration via the Balkans. There is no doubt that we should do all we can to combat the crime of human trafficking, but the introduction of obstacles to freedom of movement within the EU is not the solution. What is needed is increased cooperation between police forces.

These are sensitive political issues, which should be explored in an open debate, and it is heartening to see that the Swedish home affairs commissioner has the courage and the sense of purpose required to take on the xenophobic political parties with honest arguments.

Reaction

Brussels wants to take over for member states

“The Schengen agreement, one of the greatest achievements and symbols of European integration, has ceased to be an untouchable,” laments La Vanguardia the day after the European Commission announced its proposed reform to the free movement of persons. The reform was put forward “under pressure from France, which fears a flood of migration caused by revolts in North Africa. […] The ideas of Brussels have stirred up opposition in countries like Spain or Greece and have been severely criticised by the European Parliament”, writes the Barcelona newspaper, adding that they “could disrupt the functioning of the Schengen agreement by allowing the EU to decide which country should close its borders with a particular neighbour if it concludes that the latter ‘is not acting in accordance with its control obligations’ at its external borders.”

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