Some EU interior ministers want the right to re-impose controls within the border-free Schengen area. Many see this as a populist move ahead of the French elections.
Europeans consider the right to travel throughout the Schengen zone without having to show a passport to be one of the European Union's real achievements. But for the last few years, the political mood has changed. Many governments are concerned about uncontrolled flows of refugees. They accuse countries like Greece of not doing enough to secure the EU's outer border, thus giving immigrants free reign to live where they choose once they enter the zone.
The French interior minister, Claude Gueant, and his German counterpart, Hans-Peter Friedrich, have recently written a joint letter in which they call for the right to impose border controls for up to thirty days if there is such an extraordinary influx.
Last summer, Denmark raised a storm of protest by closing its borders for a brief period. Friedrich told his EU colleagues in Luxembourg on Thursday that his proposal was nothing like that.
"The Danes wanted to impose border controls permanently and didn't give any reason," he said.
That was not in accordance with the valuable principle of freedom to travel, Friedrich added.
"We want to have a legal basis with clear criteria for action in emergencies, which were not covered properly in the past," he said. "And we don't accept that the EU Commission is alone responsible on this issue."
'A happy balance'
Unilateral border controls are already possible, but only in the case of a "serious threat to public order and security." The current influx of refugees does not amount to that, according to both the commission and the EU parliament. Friedrich and Gueant want to change that, and they are not alone.
The Austrian interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, expressed her support for the Franco-German proposals and explained how she saw the future role of the commission.
"The commission should act as a kind of early warning system and should propose concrete measures which should then be implemented," she said.
Mikl-Leitner added that border controls should only be permitted "as a last resort" for when the commission's measures do not work. That way, she said, there would be a "happy balance between the European Commission and the member states."
On EC Commission turf
But the EU home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, does not like this division of responsibility.
"What we need with Schengen is a European mechanism, since Schengen is a European project," she said. "The commission hasn't changed its view on this."
She suggests, for example, that a country faced with an "unexpected emergency" - such as a terrorist attack or a natural catastrophe - should be able to control its borders for five days. Any extension would have to be decided on at the EU level. Malmström insists on keeping control of the border regulations when it comes to refugees, as a way of avoiding the issue from being used for populist reasons.
Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said Monday that the Franco-German proposal was indeed a populist gesture aimed at winning votes during the French presidential campaign.
After the interior ministers' meeting, Malmström did not try to hide her views on the matter.
"Schengen is far too important for it to be exploited for campaign purposes," she said.
For his part, German interior minister Friedrich denies that he made his proposal to help President Sarkozy's election campaign. Gueant also rejects any hint of populism.
"We govern for the people," he said, "and the people in France are very worried about illegal immigration. So we have to take this worry seriously."
The time chosen to launch the proposal could arouse suspicion as to the motives behind it. Officials made the Franco-German letter public just before France's first round of voting. The announcement came well before there was a practical need for it, since the interior ministers will not be deciding on a possible reform of Schengen until June.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / mll
Editor: Shant Shahrigian