10th May 2021

France and Italy get backing for changes to EU border rules

  • Old French passport: the proposed rollback of EU border freedoms has been prompted by north African migrants (Photo: letterlust)

Several member states have indicated they are prepared to back attempts by France and Italy to make it easier for countries to re-instate border controls, following an influx of migrants from north Africa.

Germany, the Netherlands, Greece and Malta have all given their blessing to Paris and Rome's call for adjustments to be made to the Schengen Agreement on passport-free travel within most of the EU, while underlining the importance of an "open Europe".

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"If you can improve the Schengen system then that is good and you should," German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday, reports AFP. "But travel freedom in Europe is such an important achievement that it should not be up for renegotiation."

In a parliamentary debate, Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers said: "I will resist those who call for simply re-instating border controls, for that goes against an open Europe, but I welcome the debate on how to strengthen and improve the Schengen rules to combat illegal immigration, especially in these times of turmoil. "

Malta and Greece stressed the need for other member states to show 'solidarity' with southern rim EU countries. The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta is often a first port-of-call for migrants from Africa while Greece is struggling to secure its border with Turkey.

"I'm in favour of review providing it reduces the burden and does not make it heavier," said Tonio Borg, Malta's deputy prime minister. "I hope the revision of the Schengen treaty will not mean creating walls and gates, but a move toward solidarity," he said.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said: "Greece is open to a revision of Schengen, but that should help Mediterranean countries."

Southern European countries have long complained that the rest of Europe is deaf to their complaints of struggling to cope with receiving immigrants.

The tension came to a head in recent weeks when Italy - having seen thousands of people, mainly Tunisians, reach its coast - decided to start granting temporary residence permits. Many of the migrants began to head to France, which reacted by closing its borders.

In a meeting designed to calm tensions, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Tuesday (26 April) issued a joint declaration calling for border controls to be re-introduced in exceptional circumstances.

The European Commission has said it will define such exceptional situations and is expected to put forward proposals next week (4 May). EU officials have repeatedly stressed however that border controls will not be re-instated as a matter of routine.

Most EU states as well as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland are signatories to the 1995 Schengen Agreement. Abolishing the internal border controls, except in cases of threats to national security, the agreement relies on trust between member states but this has been put to the test both by the recent immigration flows in the wake of the Arab Spring as well as the rise of far-right anti-immigration parties in several member states.


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