Brussels seeks bigger hand in border control decisions
The European Commission launched a bid Friday to oversee any return of border checks in Europe's passport-free travel area, despite opposition from nations refusing to hand Brussels such powers.
Beloved by travellers who can enjoy unfettered trips across Europe, the 25-nation Schengen zone faces an overhaul after changes were demanded by several EU states worried about sudden waves of immigration during the Arab Spring.
The European Commission unveiled draft legislation that would give it a big say in the reintroduction of border controls and prevent unilateral decisions, a proposal that France, Germany and Spain have already rejected.
"With these proposals we are safeguarding the future of Schengen," said EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem.
"By reinforcing its European dimension we are protecting one of the most cherished achievements of the EU: the free movement of our citizens," she said.
The commission's proposal would still allow governments to reinstate patrols in urgent situations unilaterally, but only for a five-day period.
For longer periods, countries would need a green light from the EU's executive arm and all other bloc nations -- the condition that irked Paris, Berlin and Madrid.
At the moment, governments are allowed to deploy border guards unilaterally during terror threats or major events such as football games or summits, but countries are seeking more leeway to restore controls.
The commission's proposal, which must be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament, would allow the reintroduction of border controls if an unexpected migration surge threatens public order.
And if a Schengen nation is deemed to have repeatedly failed to control its frontiers with non-EU countries, it could be temporarily excluded from the borderless area, as a last resort.
While the commission did not point the finger at a particular country, Greece has been under pressure to improve the situation on its porous border with Turkey.
Concerns about the state of the EU's external borders has delayed bids by Romania and Bulgaria to join Schengen. The Netherlands, citing the two countries' sketchy corruption records, said Friday it would block their candidacies at a meeting of EU interior ministers next week.
The EU Parliament's Socialist bloc welcomed the move to prevent unilateral border closures but voiced concern about the idea of isolating Schengen nations that struggle to prevent illegal migration.
"European governments cannot expect the EU to authorise them to seal their internal borders whenever they are faced with a concentrated influx of migrants from third countries," said Socialist Euro MP Claude Moraes.
"Migration is not a national threat but a challenge which requires a common approach and solidarity at EU level," Moraes said.
A cornerstone of European integration, the Schengen agreement faced controversy during the Arab Spring when Europe's Mediterranean nations voiced fears of seeing waves of illegal migrants on their shores.
France and Italy traded barbs when Rome handed out temporary papers to thousands of Tunisian migrants, enabling them to head for France. Paris in response sent border guards and stopped trains on the border with Italy.
Over the summer, Denmark faced criticism from Brussels when it unilaterally decided to deploy permanent customs controls at its German and Swedish borders, though this measure is likely to be watered down following Thursday's election defeat of the centre-right government by a centre-left bloc.
© 2011 AFP