• Passport control - coming back to a border near you? (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Hawkish step on EU borders outrages MEPs

08.06.12 @ 09:26

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
  2. Nikolaj email
  3. Nikolaj Twitter

BRUSSELS - EU countries have given themselves more freedom to block passport-free travel, causing outrage among MEPs.

Member states can close their borders for up to 30 days if there is a serious threat to internal security (such as major sporting events), up to 10 days in urgent cases (terrorist attacks) and up to six months if persistent problems exist at external borders.

Under the old system, in place since 2006, member states would be allowed to impose border controls in urgent cases for only up to five days according to the Commission's proposal.

Additionally, if a member state fails to control its external EU border, then its peers may on the basis of a European Commission proposal, recommend for neighbours to reintroduce border controls as a fall-back.

The ministers also excluded the European Parliament from co-decision on issues dealing with external borders, giving it observer status only. Schengen will therefore effectively remain an inter-governmental treaty based on peer assessment.

An EU source told EUobserver that smaller member states, including Belgium and Romania, defended the parliament's right to deliberate on Schengen.

But pressure from France, Germany and the Netherlands "forced their hand" and everybody voted against the MEPs in the end.

"This is essential for the trust of our citizens and to ensure that we keep our area of free movement vibrant and viable," said Dutch interior minister Gerd Leers, referring to the Schengen treaty which governs the system.

The changes have riled MEPs across most of the political spectrum.

Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, said it "disrespects parliament's powers and is a step in the wrong direction on Schengen."

The centre-right EPP group said it wants the European Court of Justice to examine its legality. Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian head of the centre-left S&D group called it "hypocrisy ... They [EU capitals] say they want more Union and yet they do less Union." Liberals called it an act of "war" against MEPs.

The commission is also unhappy after its proposal on borders was rejected.

It had suggested that member states could unilaterally re-impose border checks but only for up to five days in certain cases. Anything over five days would have required an EU-level decision.

"We are disappointed with the decision. We need an EU-based mechanism," said EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

A spokesman for the EU Council, the member states' secreteriat in Brussels, told this website: "The [current] evaluation mechanism [for suspending Schengen] was giving the commission too much power."

The push-back on border freedoms comes after a series of countries - Denmark, France, Italy and the Netherlands - took unilateral steps against irregular migrants in recent months.

Last year, tens of thousands of people fleeing the uprising throughout North Africa landed in Italy and sought asylum and refuge. Others decided to leave Italy, heading to France which imposed border control checks to stem the flow.

Large irregular migrants flows into Greece from the Turkish border has also raised concern. Frontex, the EU border agency, detected 55,000 attempted crossings into Greece in 2011 alone.

It also comes amid the rise of far-right parties in several EU national assemblies.