EU ready to restore border checks to keep migrants out
(LUXEMBOURG) - European Union nations in a landmark move Thursday agreed to enable countries to temporarily restore border checks in the visa-free Schengen area in the case of a surge of illegal migrants.
Shrugging off opposition from Brussels and triggering fury in the European parliament, home affairs ministers unanimously agreed to dust off the border posts should there be excessive pressure from would-be migrants.
France and Germany, which had argued in favour of the change, have said the measure would only apply in extreme cases.
New French socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, taking part in his first such talks, said he had backed the accord because it allowed "adressing serious situations that can arise" such as many people fleeing a worsening crisis in Syria.
Currently, the 26-nation Schengen treaty allows renewal of border controls in case of a terror threat or security threats thrown up by sports or other events. Poland for instance is restoring checks for the Euro 2012 tournament.
But under the new rules, a state within the Schengen area could reimpose border controls for six months, renewable for another six, "when the control of an external border is no longer ensured due to exceptional circumstances".
"The situation on the Greek-Turkish border shows that we need a very clear action mechanism in the Schengen area," said the Austrian minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
Illegal immigration has emerged as one of Europe's most sensitive political issues amid the debt crisis, slow growth and mounting unemployment.
But there was anger both in Brussels and among MEPs.
"Free movement within an area without internal borders is a pillar of the European Union -- one of its most tangible benefits," said parliamentary president Martin Schulz.
"Disappointed by lack of European ambition among member states", said the EU's home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who opposed the move.
She repeatedly argued that Schengen was never designed to control migration but to ease freedom of movement.
The EU's Frontex agency in charge of manning borders said in a report that registered illegal crossings on the outer borders of the Schengen area shot up by 35 percent in 2011.
Numbers rose from 104,000 in 2010 to 141,000 the following year, largely due to flows across the Mediterranean from the Arab Spring upheavals.
But the second biggest hot-spot was the border between Greece and Turkey, which saw 55,000 detections last year.
With low-cost flights to Turkey on the increase as war, chaos and poverty send people fleeing hot-spots from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia, the flow is forecast to increase.
Responding to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, France and Germany in April sent Schengen counterparts a joint letter calling for drastic change.
That was before the May election of socialist President Francois Hollande, who stepped into the shoes of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. And Brussels had hoped the new French leadership would shift sides.
But Valls was in a tight spot. Should he have rejected the previous government's stand, his Socialist party would have faced the probable ire of the right just as France heads into parliamentary elections June 10 and 17.
Sarkozy, chasing the far-right vote, had threatened to pull out of the Schengen zone within a year failing improved action to keep out illegal migrants.
Last year France had an angry spat with Italy after Rome issued papers enabling thousands of refugees from the Arab Spring to ride trains across their common border.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, had proposed that states be authorised to close borders for five days in case of migratory pressure, but would have to seek permission from Brussels for longer periods.