In the run-up to the April election, President Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to pull France out of Europe’s border-free Schengen area, putting passport-free travel in Europe at risk.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister, the social democrat Jean Asselborn, has had enough of the right-wing populist election campaign being run by the conservative French president. He has accused Nicolas Sarkozy of promoting anti-European and populist ideas and of wanting to break up the Schengen Area, describing Sarkozy's comments as "saber-rattling of the highest degree."
Hannes Swoboda, the speaker of the European socialist group, has accused Sarkozy of using "reprehensible" tactics to place one of Europe's great achievements into question, the right to border free travel within the European Union. "Colleagues, should we really show our passport every time we travel to [the European Parliament in] Strasbourg?" said Swoboda, speaking at the Parliament on Tuesday.
The Schengen Agreement, named after the Luxembourg border village in which it was signed in 1985, allows people and goods to travel within the EU's borders without border controls. It has been in effect since 1995.
No Schengen exit
Asselborn is especially annoyed that Sarkozy has said he intends to temporarily suspend the Schengen rules, should France not achieve all the reforms it is has demanded.
A spokeswoman for the EU Commission in Brussels has confirmed that neither France, nor any other country, would be able to simply walk away from the agreement. Since their introduction, the Schengen rules concerning travel have become part of the European treaties, and aren't just treaties signed between individual states.
Any country that wants to make changes to Schengen must alter the Lisbon Treaty, the EU's legal foundation, and that's only possible with the agreement of all 27 EU members. Should France decide to unilaterally reintroduce border controls, the EU Commission would have to launch treaty violation proceedings against Paris.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU commissioner for home affairs, is responsible for overseeing the Schengen regulations. Following a spat between Italy and France in 2011 over the movement of illegal migrants from North Africa, she acknowledged that Schengen needed an overhaul.
Until now, EU states have been able to temporarily reintroduce border controls if they felt there was a threat to national security. In December, Malmstrom suggested that renewed border controls only be allowed following a ruling from Brussels, and was rebuffed by many member states. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was critical of the idea, saying Malmstrom was trying to infringe on the sovereign rights of member states.
Greece must better monitor its borders
In his campaign speeches, Sarkozy has claimed that France is being overrun by foreigners, blaming the lax border controls on the EU's outer edges. He demanded that Schengen be reformed no later than a year following his possible re-election in April.
"We need a sort of administration for the Schengen Area, something to oversee immigration, similar to the financial controls in the eurozone monetary union," said Sarkozy. States on the edges of the EU that are unable to seal off their external borders should be excluded from Schengen, he added, or forced to close their interior borders to EU neighbors.
Sarkozy was referring indirectly to Greece, one of the EU's current trouble areas when it comes to border controls. Most of the illegal immigrants that enter the EU come through its land border with Turkey. The EU's border agency, Frontex, has said Greece has become the main point of entry for immigrants coming from Africa and Asia.
France isn't the only EU member to have criticized Greece. At the recent meeting of European interior ministers, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Sweden were all sharply critical of the Mediterranean nation. These seven countries take in 75 percent of all asylum seekers in the European Union; the European Court of Justice has said in many cases that Greece is unable to provide adequate standards of protection for asylum seekers.
Fewer foreigners in France compared to EU average
Sarkozy said the reason for his criticism of the Schengen Agreement was due to the "influx" of foreigners to France, without elaborating further.
According to February figures from the EU statistical agency Eurostat, foreigners make up only 5.8 percent of France's population, lower than the EU average of 6.5 percent. Most of the legal immigrants that do come to France do so to join their families.
In 2010, half a million illegal immigrants entered the European Union, according to the EU Commission, most of them in Greece and Spain. About 260,000 people applied for asylum, and indeed 53,000, the majority, applied in France. Most of the refugees in 2010 came from Afghanistan, Russia, Serbia, Iraq and Somalia.
Visa freedoms in danger
Many illegal immigrants also travel through the various countries in the western Balkans. The EU has guaranteed these countries visa-free travel rights, but many travelers arriving from these countries end up staying longer than the permitted 90 days, according to Tanja Fajon, member of the European Parliament responsible for overseeing visa issues.
In December, the Parliament and member states agreed visa restrictions could be reintroduced for a number of western Balkan nations as early as this year. Albania is a hot spot for such visa infringers, who then apply for asylum in the EU. Many members of the Roma ethnic group from Serbia and Macedonia also choose this method of illegal entry.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has also begun to doubt the efficacy of the Schengen Agreement. The country has begun photographing all automobile license plates at its border crossings, in order to identify suspicious vehicles.
In 2011, the Conservative government in Denmark briefly reintroduced customs officers on its borders with Germany and Sweden. The Social Democrats revoked the beefed-up border presence shortly after their election victory in the fall.
During the Italy-France spat last summer, Italy issued Schengen visas to refugees fleeing the unrest in North Africa, enabling them to continue their journeys into France. In response, France illegally reintroduced its border controls with its southern neighbor. The dispute was ultimately settled with the help of the EU Commission, but it led to a fundamental discussion about the revision of the Schengen rules.
Author: Bernd Riegert / cmk
Editor: Neil King