MEPs launch counterattack against Schengen deal
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.
Schengen is a village at the border of Luxembourg, France and Germany, where an agreement was signed in 1985 to gradually abolish checks at borders between those countries, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Today, the Schengen border-free area consists of 25 member states: 22 EU countries (all except Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland, Britain and Cyprus) as well as three associated countries: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Denmark has signed the Schengen agreement, but has kept its freedom not to apply certain measures.
Following the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011, diplomatic tensions mounted between Paris and Rome over an arrival of refugees from Tunisia. France and Italy called for a Schengen re-write, and the Commission issued a legislative proposal for better management of borders.
The situation was further complicated with the massive arrival of illegal immigrants across the Greece-Turkey border. In a joint letter to the Danish EU presidency in April, French and German Interior ministers asked to repatriate powers from the EU Commission, which would allow them to re-establish border controls as a matter of national sovereignty.
Centre-right group leader Joseph Daul said it was "absolutely unacceptable" and accused ministers of breaking the bond of trust with the Parliament.
Daul added that the Danish presidency was "no longer a credible interlocutor". He added: "The solution to our problems is not to close our borders. The solution is instead shared sovereignty, it’s joint management in a spirit of mutual trust for that which we hold most dear – our freedom.
"The Danish presidency has broken a bond of trust with this parliament, because it has recklessly departed from the fundamental principle of the community method. This principle ensures that in fact the largest member states do not impose their will on the smaller; it ensures that the general European interest outweighs national interests."
"It is unacceptable to exclude the parliament from this process," said Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialists and Democrats. "The parliament must have co-decision powers on this issue and we have always fought jointly with the commission for the free moment of citizens. We will not give up on this.
Speaking for the Commission, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said she was "disappointed" by the Council decision, because in her words Schengen is a joint initiative welcomed by EU citizens and any decision to reintroduce border controls cannot be taken unilaterally.
Anthea McIntyre, the European Conservatives and Reformists group's shadow rapporteur on the proposals, told the assembly to drop the 'childish tantrum'.
"I too was surprised by the Council's move to change the legal basis of Schengen. But I am even more surprised by your reactions. This is a time for cool heads and calm consideration,” she added, saying the first step should be to investigate the legal consequences of the Council's action.
"In my view the management of a country's borders is directly linked to national security and, under the European Treaties, national security remains the responsibility of each member state. I understand why member states don't want to give up this competence - and they are quite right."
Cornelia Ernst, from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, described the move as "anti-democratic" and "despicable". She said: "With this decision you are making Europe look ridiculous to the world and with this populist move you will strengthen the forces of nationalism."
- July 2012: European Parliament to vote on Schengen governance reform