French Interior Minister Claude Guéant pleaded yesterday (26 April) for a Schengen revamp in line with the anti-immigration rhetoric of Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces an uphill battle for re-election on 6 May. He obtained the support of Germany and Austria, but was rebuked by Belgium and Sweden.
Guéant told his EU colleagues, gathered in Luxembourg for a Justice and Home Affairs Council that France gave the Union eleven months to reform Schengen according to its blueprint, or else Paris would act unilaterally and restore border controls.
The French Minister, who is a close political friend of President Sarkozy, said that 400,000 illegal immigrants were coming to the EU every year and cited the European Commission according to which between two and four million illegal immigrants live on European soil.
Guéant said that the EU had "eleven months" to pass reforms to the way Schengen functions. Speaking at an election rally last month, Sarkozy said France should leave Schengen, if changes he wants are not implemented within a year.
Reportedly, the French minister obtained the support of his German colleague Hans-Peter Friedrich.
Last week, Friedrich and Guéant sent a joint letter to the Danish EU presidency, French and German interior ministers have asked to repatriate powers from the EU Commission, which would allow them to re-establish border controls.
"The security of our citizens is something that cannot be transferred to the Commission," Friedrich said in Luxembourg. "This is a responsibility of every country, I hope there is no doubt about that."
Austrian Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, also reportedly expressed her support for the Franco-German proposals. She added however that border controls should only be permitted "as a last resort" for when the Commission's measures are insufficient.
Hungary and the Czech Republic also voiced support for the French-German proposal.
But on the other side, Belgium and Sweden voiced opposition.
Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Joëlle Milquet regretted that her French colleague was "instrumentalising" the Council meeting for electoral purposes, pushing for a "rather improvised debate".
"It appears to me that [for some] the election agendas are more important than the substance of the issues on problems existing since a very long time. I feel a little bit instrumentalised," she said.
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström insisted that Schengen was a European, not an intergovernmental project.
"What we need with Schengen is a European mechanism, since Schengen is a European project," she said. "The commission hasn't changed its view on this," she was quoted as saying.