Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

France and Italy acted against 'spirit' of EU border laws

  • Tunisian migrants arriving in Lampedusa were not welcomed in Italy or France (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Both France and Italy acted within the law with measures taken to counter the thousands of Tunisian immigrants coming to the EU earlier this year, but they breached the "spirit" of the EU's freedom of movement agreement, the EU commission has said.

"From a formal point of view steps taken by Italian and French authorities have been in compliance with EU law. However, I regret that the spirit of the Schengen rules has not been fully respected," EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said Monday (25 July), three months after French police were deployed at the Italian border to send Tunisians back to Italy.

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Thousands of Tunisians arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the first months of this year, profiting from lax coastal surveillance after the fall of dictator Ben Ali. With many of them being French-speakers, a natural destination was France. Their passage was made easier by the Italian authorities who did not keep them in detention centres and granted them temporary residence permits.

In reaction, France reinforced its 'spot checks' at the border, with riot police boarding trains and checking the papers of the persons on board.

"Our analysis confirms that police checks carried out by French authorities remained within the limits compatible with the Schengen Borders Code. On the basis of the information received on the checks, it cannot be concluded that France would have carried out systematic checks in the internal border zone with Italy during the past months," the commissioner said.

Rome's measure were not in breach with EU law either, but "there is scope for clarifying the approach at EU level," the commissioner said.

The EU commission wants to draft guidelines on how and when these permits can be issued - a prerogative of national governments.

"In fact, all this clearly demonstrates the need to address the Schengen governance in a comprehensive and coordinated way. To increase trust among EU citizens and member states, the Schengen area also needs a stronger evaluation and monitoring system," the commissioner added.

But her push to have the EU commission involved in the evaluation of how member states guard their borders - currently an assessment carried out by experts sent from national capitals - has little support among governments.

The commission is going to go ahead and publish proposals on border monitoring in September anyway. They will come when interior ministers are due to discuss when Bulgaria and Romania can enter the EU's borderless Schengen zone. A decision was delayed in June at the insistence of France and the Netherlands, citing corruption concerns.

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