Arab spring may lead to redrawing of Schengen-eroded borders


EUROPEAN DIARY:Franco-Italian concerns over Tunisian migrants are testing belief in unchecked transit between EU states, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

CARS DART forward on a busy motorway, screeching in and out of the fast lane. A little more than an hour from Brussels, the Dutch border looms. Cars zoom right past it, not a line on the road to mark the frontier. You’d hardly notice.

Welcome to the Schengen area, the vast visa-free travel zone that stands as one of the EU’s signal achievements. Take the super-fast train to Paris, no passport required. It’s the same to fly to Berlin and hundreds of other cities. Upon arrival, disembark – no papers necessary.

Ireland does not participate (neither does Britain), but most European member states do, and so do non-EU countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. To travel like this within Europe’s far-flung frontiers is a routine privilege for hundreds of millions of people, and easily taken for granted.

Legions died and killed for borders in the vexed course of Europe’s bloodied past. Now you simply pass on through to the other side. It’s been that way since 1995. No fuss, no small talk with terse border guards, no need to rifle through drawers for the blessed missing passport just before leaving the house.

Just as the euro is in a spot of bother, however, so, too, is the Schengen system.

Even though the outwork of the ructions in North Africa and the Middle East is likely to remain unclear for a long time, the upheavals may soon lead to an emergency rejig of the Schengen rules. Such are the unpredictable vicissitudes of the “Arab spring”.

The first reason for this is an influx of 30,000 mostly Tunisian migrants to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, many of them arriving over the Mediterranean on rickety fishing boats.

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi claims Rome cannot handle this on its own, but his EU counterparts have spurned pleas for special aid.

Thanks to French colonialism, the Tunisians are French- speakers. With no little Italian help, many of them tried to flee to France. President Nicolas Sarkozy was predictably boisterous in his response. Border controls are way up, trains are under close surveillance and the Tunisians are being sent back to Italy if caught.

Glowering loudly in the backdrop, meanwhile, is mounting domestic pressure on Sarko and Silvio over immigration.

Each is in a luckless phase. In the face of a far-right onslaught from the Front National, Sarkozy’s poll ratings are in freefall as he lurches towards a presidential election next year. And Berlusconi’s erotic escapades have him in the courts.

With all of that in mind, critics saw something of the cynical in their joint plea last week for an overhaul of the 1985 Schengen pact.

As Der Spiegel pointed out, sudden migratory pressure is nothing new in Europe. Germany provided temporary home for some 350,000 people fleeing war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, it noted.

At the weekend, however, the European Commission responded to Franco-Italian concerns by saying it is now examining new measures to allow member states reinstate some border controls in a review of migration policy.

“The temporary restoration of borders is one of the possibilities, provided this is subject to specific and clearly defined criteria, that could be an element to strengthen the governance of the Schengen agreement,” said commission chief José Manuel Barroso in a letter to Sarkozy and Berlusconi.

Still, temporary border controls can already be introduced under the existing regime.

All that is required to waive the rules for 30 days is the declaration of a “serious threat” to public order or internal security. However, member states must themselves decide what constitutes such a threat.

These provisions have never been invoked due to fear of tit-for-tat manoeuvres, leading to the implosion of the wider system.

It follows that any new measures are likely to codify in detail how the Schengen system might be suspended in practice and how such suspensions should be lifted as well. First sight of the commission’s thinking will come tomorrow in a communique on migration policy generally, but legislative proposals are some time off as of yet.

That this is messy from a political perspective is obvious, for member states are deeply divided within and among themselves over migration. Moreover, the Franco-Italian case makes clear that there are two sides to every border story.

One thing is certain, however. Any Schengen overhaul will not make it appreciably easier to enter Europe.

In his book Postwar, historian Tony Judt described the Schengen system as Europe’s “greatest transnational achievement” of the 1970s and 1980s but noted the reinforcement of its external frontiers. “Civilised Europeans could indeed transcend boundaries – but the ‘barbarians’ would be kept resolutely beyond them.” Quite. European involvement in the policing of the porous Greek border with Turkey is a case in point.