EU home affairs ministers voted unanimously yesterday (7 June) for the re-introduction of internal border controls in the Schengen area, dwarfing the decision-making role of EU institutions in that policy area. The Commission regretted the decision and MEPs vowed to reject the draft legislation.
At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU home affairs ministers agreed on new rules that would allow countries to reintroduce border controls, if one state persistently fails to stop illegal migrants from entering Europe's Schengen zone.
Such a decision would have to follow careful monitoring of the external borders, which reveals a "serious threat to public policy or internal security" in the EU.
Checks between the countries failing to meet standards and other EU states could be put in place for six months at a time, with possible extensions up to two years.
"There must be no weak links in the chain when it comes to illegal migration," Danish Justice Minister Morten Bodskov told a news conference after the meeting. "Steps need to be taken quickly if Schengen cooperation is under threat."
To ensure the EU's external borders are well protected, the ministers also agreed to step up monitoring of how checks are conducted.
One country that could come under increased scrutiny is Greece which regularly faces criticism for failing to protect its border with Turkey (see background).
The developments suggest that in spite of the departure of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy from the political scene, the Schengen reform spearheaded by his administration remains valid.
Last April, the former French Interior Minister Claude Guéant and his German colleague Hans-Peter Friedrich asked the Danish Presidency in a joint letter to repatriate powers from the EU Commission, which would allow them to re-establish border controls for people travelling from Greece.
According to the French press, the country’s new Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist, is in a delicate situation, as France holds parliamentary elections on 10 and 17 June. The leader of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, obtained 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on 22 April. She now hopes that the Front National could make its entry into the French Parliament. A controversy over immigration policies could boost her camp, analysts believe.
Last week, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that the French-German letter was no longer on the agenda. After the home affairs ministerial meeting, she tweeted that she was “disappointed by the lack of European ambition among the member states”.
The European Parliament reacted in an unusually strong manner, considering the ministers’ vote “a serious inter-institutional incident”. MEPs are particularly concerned over the fact that ministers voted to change the co-decision procedure on Schengen matters to a mere consultation procedure – meaning the EP position can be totally ignored.
Following a conference of the Presidents of the Europea Parliament’s political groups, President Martin Schulz stated that the Council “disrespects Parliament's powers and is a step in the wrong direction on Schengen” (see Positions).
The Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee has now scheduled a vote on the Schengen Governance Package to take place on 11 June in Strasbourg. The Parliament also wants the Danish EU Presidency to explain its position in a plenary sitting next week.
The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz made the following statement at the end of Conference of Presidents (EP President and leaders of political groups)
"The European Parliament is deeply disappointed at the unilateral and counterproductive behaviour of the Justice and Home Affairs Council today.
This decision disrespects Parliament's powers and is a step in the wrong direction on Schengen.
This unnecessary power game will not achieve the outcome our citizens expect from the Union. In a Union of states and citizens, it is disturbing to see that national governments seek to exclude the citizens' representatives on matters relating to individual rights.
[…] The European Parliament will not accept any extra reason for reintroducing border controls without a proper Community-based mechanism to evaluate and monitor whether this is necessary or not.
The European Parliament will therefore continue with the legislative procedure on this dossier and examine all available options. We will insist that the Danish Presidency explains its position before the European Parliament next week in Strasbourg during the plenary session."
"I urge the Danish Prime Minister and President of the Council, Mrs. Thorning-Schmidt, to participate in a debate with the Parliament at the opening of the next plenary session in Strasbourg on Monday 11 June at 17.00 hours", the President of the EPP group Joseph Daul in a statement.
"The Danish Prime Minister is a former member of this House. More than any other Prime Minister in Europe, she should know how utterly counterproductive today's Council decision is. It gravely jeopardizes the working relations between the Parliament and the Council. We need a personal reassurance from her that the Parliament is going to be fully involved in the decision-making process", Daul staed.
ALDE Group President Guy Verhofstadt said: "How can we trust that the Council will respect one of the major achievements of the EU given that the first thing it decides upon is to weaken the involvement of the Parliament. All our fears and concerns just materialised. By taking this decision, the Council sent a clear signal, namely they will find any excuse to close the borders as they close ranks against us".
"We can't accept this. It is in clear contravention of the spirit of loyal cooperation between institutions. Parliament will examine whether to launch legal action against the Council. We should even consider, if the Council continues with such an attitude, to suspend other legislative negotiations ongoing with the Council", he concluded.
The Greek-Turkish border that spans 130 kilometres is safe except for an area of around 20 kilometres near Orestiada and the Turkish city of Edirne, at the place where the river Evros (in Greek, Meriç in Turkish, Maritsa in Bulgarian) crosses the border.
Greek authorities recently expressed the wish to build a fence with EU money at this location. However, the EU Commission rejected the idea, considering that walls and fences were "temporary measures" for which the EU taxpayers' money should not be spent.
It remains unclear if cash-strapped Greece has the means to erect such a barrier.
Recently the Commission said that the number of migrants crossing the Greek-Turkish border had decreased from 2,000 to 500 a week.
- 11 June: Danish Presidency to be questioned by MEPs on Schengen vote in plenary sitting
- 11 June: Civil Liberties Committee to vote on the Schengen governance package
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