French President Nicolas Sarkozy has warned repeatedly in the run-up to Sunday's presidential election that if countries bordering non-Schengen nations fail to comply with their obligations to secure the frontiers appropriately, France have no choice but to protect its borders against illegal immigration by reinstituting passport controls.
This week, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich is singing from the same hymn book. He and his French counterpart Claude Gueant wrote a letter to the Danish EU Council Presidency, calling for countries to have the right to reintroduce checks at the internal borders for no more than 30 days.
It is an election campaign maneuver, say critics, who reacted promptly. But Ska Keller, a German member of European Parliament for the Greens, said she believes there is more to the joint letter than just electoral politics.
"France and Germany want to put their fingerprint on the direction the discussion is going to go at the next Council meeting in June," she said.
Reforming border controls
The German-French initiative comes after months of smoldering conflict among EU states about a possible revision of the Schengen accord. Its key elements are the abolishment of border controls between member states as well as coordinated security policy and border control on the common external frontiers.
But some countries on the periphery of the Schengen area have massive problems coping with the influx of refugees and asylum seekers. Italy, for instance, was confronted with a huge wave of refugees from Arab countries. Currently, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are trying to get into Europe via Turkey and Greece.
Keller said patrolling internal border controls are not the appropriate way to deal with refugees. She added that while the European Union is praising the democracy movements in the Arab world, it is not making constructive suggestions as to how to support immigrants from the region in the difficult period of transition. And 30-day controls, Keller said, would prove ineffective anyway.
Renate Sommer from the European Parliament's Christian Democratic group agreed reintroducing internal border controls is not an appropriate measure.
"Illegal immigrants usually don't go via the border checkpoint anyway, so controls wouldn't make any sense," she said.
Instead, Sommer suggested that the EU reinforce the protection of its external frontiers by enhancing the EU border protection group Frontex.
In addition, reintroducing controls on Germany's borders would entail a "traffic meltdown," Sommer said.
"We simply can't afford it. Germany is the number one transit country for heavy duty traffic. It would hurt our economy if we reintroduced border controls," she said.
The current discussion is about more than just illegal migration, however. It is also a new chapter in the power struggle between the national states and Brussels on the one hand, and between the various EU institutions on the other.
The EU Commission, the 27-member bloc's executive arm, presented a reform agenda for the Schengen accord last year, suggesting it become the sole body to decide whether border controls can potentially be reintroduced.
EU member states vehemently opposed the plan, with support from the European Parliament.
Sommer said the Commission was trying to gain powers that undermine countries' national sovereignty. She said the European Parliament would not lend its support to the initiative proposed by the German and French interior ministers.
"There's agreement among all the groups in the European Parliament that we will not allow member states to push through national solo attempts," she said.
Author: Rachel Gessat / nh
Editor: Sean Sinico