Seeking to strike a balance between France and Italy's calls for border controls within the Schengen border-free area to be reintroduced on demand and federalist views, according to which such a move would undermine the EU, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso admitted that such checks could be reinstated as "a last resort".
Facing an angry European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday (10 May), Barroso insisted that recent proposals tabled by the Commission to improve the governance of the Schengen zone (see 'Background') had not been produced under pressure from France and Italy. According to him, they had been planned last year, well before the recent spate of arrivals of refugees from Northern Africa.
But he immediately added that in view of the present circumstances, the EU "urgently" needed to reinforce governance of Schengen and the bloc's external borders.
"Reintroducing border controls is not a desirable development for Europe, neither in the current circumstances, nor for the future challenges that we will face sooner or later. It should be an absolute last resort," Barroso said.
"This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is not an improvisation," he insisted.
Without naming France, Barroso was critical of the unilateral re-introduction of de facto border controls.
"It is time to nip this tendency in the bud, to stop it 'ab ovo'," he said.
While admitting that any attempt to undermine Schengen was a threat to Europe's foundations, Barroso admitted that changes were needed to prevent member states from acting unilaterally.
"We cannot be blind and not face the fact that the latest events have revealed a problem in Schengen governance that we have to solve. If we do not reinforce the existing mechanisms, member states will continue to act alone. They will in fact be encouraged to act alone," Barroso said.
Against the populists
To avoid giving rise to the arguments of populists and extremists, the best way to avoid putting Schengen at risk was to reinforce its governance and clarify some aspects of its operation.
"We know that it is now fashionable in some quarters to be extremist or populist or even to wave sometimes the flags of xenophobia. This in not what we are going to do. We will resist all these kinds of pressure," Barroso said.
His words could also be interpreted in the context of presidential elections in France and a surge in the popularity of the nationalist far-right Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, who is criticising Sarkozy for his alleged laxity on immigration.
But Barroso's calls did not prevent Socialists & Democrats leader Martin Schulz from accusing him, as well as Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, of "caving in" to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Similarly, the leader of the liberal ALDE group, Guy Verhofstadt, lashed out at what he described as "a ping-pong game by two governments on the back of refugees". The reintroduction of internal borders is "against the essence of the EU" and "out of proportion" compared to the extent of the problem, he said, adding that his group would fight against the reintroduction of border checks.
German MEP Manfred Weber (Socialists & Democrats) agreed that Schengen is one of the successes of the European project and promised to defend it. He noted that Sweden takes 25,000 refugees a year but that "hasn't put Schengen into question".
French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chair of Greens/European Free Alliance group, noted that the EU hosted many refugees during the war in Bosnia. "Germany took on several hundreds of thousands and didn't sink".
He warned that internal frontier controls would victimise those who are "bronzed, different".
Portuguese leftist MEP Rui Tavares (GUE/NGL), said setting aside Schengen would be harmful for Europe and unacceptable.
"Now is the time to focus on not only providing free movement but also better guarding the borders," said UK MEP Timothy Kirkhope (European Conservatives and Reformists). However, "now there are challenges that did not exist before: large-scale unemployment, migration from North Africa, terrorism. The current system is flawed and ill-equipped for these new circumstances".
UKIP MEP Nigel Farage said,"the row that has blown up between Italy and France shows that when there is a crisis it is the nation state that wins".