European lawmakers yesterday (12 June) denounced the Danish presidency and the Council for agreeing to re-introduce internal border controls in the Schengen area, in effect bypassing the Parliament while negotiations are still ongoing.

Danish Justice Minister Morten Bødskov was under fire at the Strasbourg plenary for having brokered a controversial EU ministers’ decision on new rules that would allow countries to reintroduce border controls, if one state persistently fails to stop illegal migrants from entering Europe’s borderless Schengen area.

Speakers from most political groups slammed the Danish presidency for what they said was a direct attack on the EU's fundamental values.

MEPs asked Bødskov to explain why EU justice and home affairs ministers had decided on 7 June to change the legal basis of the rules governing the evaluation of Schengen, removing rights for both the Parliament and Commission to exercise their supervisory role on the border-free area.

The decision was taken while negotiations with  other EU institutions were still in progress on the Schengen governance reform package, comprising two key legislative files, one related to the reintroduction of border controls (Weber report) and one on the evaluation of Schengen (Coehlo report). The Parliament vote is due in July.

As a result, the Civil Liberties Committee MEPs decided on Monday evening to ignore EU ministers' decision and adopt the reports. But they reserved the right to bring a European Court of Justice case against the EU governments' decision.

Bødskov replied that this was a legal decision based on contents, not on politics. He called on MEPs to "look at this in a broader perspective", adding that "with this compromise we are advocating a model based on more EU".

Seizing the court 

But he failed to convince MEPs.

“We simply will not accept this. We must challenge the Council's decision before the European Court of Justice,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group.

"You have broken the relation of trust with this Parliament, and broken away from the Community method, which guarantees that larger member states cannot impose their will on smaller ones," Joseph Daul, leader of the centre right EPP group, told the Parliament.

"You have opened the door to populism and we will stand against you," said Hannes Swoboda, leader of the group of the Socialists and Democrats.

Political group leaders will evaluate today (13 June) whether to challenge the Council’s decision before the court, after they receive the green light from the assembly’s legal service.  

MEPs want to be sure to win if they seize the Court, otherwise one of the possible routes to counter EU ministers’ decision is to call on the Commission to withdraw the proposal, Swoboda told EurActiv.

Whatever the outcome, the EU ministerial decision goes against the “spirit of the Lisbon Treaty, maybe not against the text,” Swoboda added.

A clear break with the Danish presidency

MEPs expressed their intention to halt all ongoing negotiation with the Danish presidency, particularly in the area of justice and home affairs.

“For my part that, since the evening of 7 June, the Danish presidency is no longer a credible interlocutor. From now to June 30 at midnight, we shall address ourselves exclusively either to the European Council or informally to the next presidency, of the Republic of Cyprus", Daul said.

“We should halt all ongoing negotiations in the area of justice and home affairs under the Danish presidency,” Verhofstadt said.

Bødskov appeared overwhelmed by the criticism and insisted that a row over the issue would be "destructive".

Anthea McIntyre from the conservative ECR group said that in the times of crisis, instead of “childish games”, the EU needed good working relations between its institutions. She defended the right of the countries to manage their borders.

Institutional political confrontation on the horizon

As the EU prepares to celebrate the 27th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement, one of the key symbols of European integration, the row between member states and the only democratically elected European institution is likely to rock the 27-nation bloc.

“We are at a point of radical confrontation and measures will be radical,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament.

MEPs highlighted polls showing that 62% of EU citizens consider Schengen as the most positive outcome of 50 years of European integration, which made passport-free travel possible for over 400 million Europeans.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, while expressing disappointment at the Council decision, hinted that there was still room for manoeuvre.

"I'm convinced that the last word is not said on this," she said.

The European Parliament final vote on the initial Commission proposal is scheduled for July and it will conclude the first reading of the legislative procedure.