France contemplates border controls as rightists pillory Schengen

Manuel Valls: 'We want France to be attractive'. [Shutterstock] [Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock]

The French government may reintroduce border controls in an attempt to pacify critics of the Schengen area. EURACTIV France reports

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced plans to assign several hundreds of million euros to refugee hosting projects and opened the question of reestablishing border controls during a parliamentary debate on Wednesday (16 September).

In the half-empty hemicycle of the French National Assembly, the premier defended the government’s choices, which he said were “guided by an intelligent and firm heart”.

Manuel Valls told lawmakers that he rejected the discourse of those “who tell us: we have to close all the borders”, as much as those who say “We must be completely open.”

Beside the additional budget for the refugees, he also announced increased funding to tackle homelessness and the creation of 900 jobs in the security forces to counter illegal immigration.

The prime minister also stressed that France “would not hesitate” to re-establish temporary border controls “in the coming days or the coming weeks”, as Germany has already done. France has already re-established checks on its Italian border.

Understanding public opinion

80% of French citizens are in favour of these measures, according to a survey carried out by Elabe for BFM TV.

Speaking in the Senate after Valls’ speech, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve said that deportations of asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected were up 20%. “We aim to pursue this trend,” he added.

The left wing parties of the French parliament joined forces to highlight France’s “moral responsibility” to host asylum seekers fleeing war in Syria and Iraq. They emphasised their conviction that France could overcome this challenge, as it did with the Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s rule and the Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people.

Left-wing MPs also came together to condemn the European disunity on the matter. “In Europe, we do not abandon our responsibility for solidarity,” said Bruno Le Roux, the head of the Socialist party delegation. He added that he was “ashamed of the statements and decisions of the Hungarian authorities”.

Some attacked President François Hollande over his plan to accept 24,000 migrants over two years, calling it “modest” (Sergio Coronado, Green), or even “pathetic” (André Chassaigne, Left Front).

Schengen under fire from the right

Philippe Vigier, an MP from the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), hailed the plan as “late but brave”, but said France needed a system to “distinguish between refugees and illegal immigrants”. He also aired his opinion that “Schengen is dead”.

Republican MP Valérie Pécresse shared this assessment of Europe’s border-free zone, and added that France should “send illegal immigrants back home to make way for the refugees”.

After being thrown into disarray by Angela Merkel’s decision to accept large numbers of refugees in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party has tried to pull itself back together around a new proposal for the future of the EU’s free movement area, known as “Schengen 2”.

Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the creation of a temporary “war refugee” status, which could be withdrawn when peace returned to the refugee’s country of origin.

The Republican party also held a “working day” on immigration on Wednesday (16 September), where it asked its members a series of 11 questions on, for example, whether or not they supported “the suspension of Schengen” or a “reduction of Europe’s social attractiveness”.

For political opponents of the former president, this is further evidence of a “swing towards the extreme right”.

Manuel Valls rejected the idea of a war refugee status, which he said “already exists”. He added that “Those who think they can get rid of the right to asylum like this are mistaken.”

The uncharacteristically united left also decried the National Front’s desire to abolish the Schengen treaty, saying they were determined not to allow “demagogues” to decide on issues that were “too important”.

>> Read: Juncker defies EU countries with distribution plan for 160,000 refugees

Since 1999, the EU has worked to create a Common European Asylum System and improve the current legislative framework.

New EU rules have now been agreed, setting out common high standards and stronger co-operation, to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

But EU countries rejected the Commission's proposal that asylum seekers from the countries mostly affected from the arrival of migrants should be relocated in other EU member states.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.

But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

That made way for the European Union's border control mission, Triton.

However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem. 

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