Sarkozy aide brings election campaign to EU meeting

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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.

The Young European Federalists (JEF) strongly condemned the attempts to "re-nationalise borders" within the Schengen area.

"The proposal is nothing more than cheap populism and only serves resentments", commented JEF Germany president Lars Becker. He added: "This is an attack on the freedom of movement and the EU civil liberties."

His French colleague, Aurélien Caron, agreed, saying: "Borders are nowadays a European and not a national matter. We call on the governments not to abuse this topic for national elections."

The final round of the 2012 presidential election in France is on 6 May. Polls have given François Hollande the edge.

The election is seen as a potential game-changer for the European Union. If France turns left, as opinion polls indicate, the near-monopoly of the centre-right European People's Party in Europe would be broken.

In case of another mandate for incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, Europe could move faster towards a two-speed Union and a revamp of the bloc's Schengen area that could see Greece excluded from the passport-free travel zone and further EU enlargement frozen.

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