Refugees put border controls back on EU radar

Posted by admin on May 14th, 2011

Paola Totaro. May 14, 2011, Sydney Morning Herald

LONDON: Europe’s much-loved system of border-free travel – allowing movement without passports across 25 countries from Iceland to Greece – will be overhauled in a bid to control the exodus of migrants from North Africa prompted by the so-called Arab Spring. A meeting of EU interior ministers has decided that nations should be allowed to re-establish border controls – as a last resort – to deal with sudden surges in migration or if one EU state fails to control its frontiers with a non-EU neighbour.

The proposal from the European Commission will be debated in the European Parliament next month.

Debated and accepted behind closed doors in Brussels this week, the plan is a populist response to pressure from Italy and France whose leaders, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, have increasingly used illegal immigration and stoked fears of a ”human tsunami” from North Africa to fuel their electoral chances.

The European Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, has insisted that secure borders ”does not mean that we are constructing Fortress Europe”, saying the move was for emergencies and much-needed labour migration.

However this week Denmark announced on the eve of the meeting that it planned to unilaterally restore customs and immigration checks on its borders with Sweden and Germany.

The leader of the conservative European People’s Party, Joseph Daul, told Agence France-Presse that if Denmark wanted to question consensus on the issue, it should withdraw from the Schengen accord, ”in which case Danish citizens would quickly feel the disadvantages”, he said.

According to European reports, 15 of the EU’s 27-member states supported the changes while Belgium, Spain and Malta voiced reservations. Cyprus was the only vocal opponent.

The Schengen area embraces 400 million people across 25 nations and includes countries, such as Iceland and Switzerland, that are not EU members.

However, the burgeoning problems of mass immigration and asylum for refugees has failed to spawn a Europe-wide response. Political rhetoric at national level is often in direct contrast with the ideals of the European Union.

In recent years, countries such as Italy have attempted to offer financial incentives to nations like Libya to police their own borders and stymie the flow of migrants.

The EU has paid billions over the years to fund deportation and reintegration of illegal immigrants back to nations such as Egypt and Tunisia.

Now, with revolutionary events in the Maghreb, there is even greater conflict between Europe’s accepted need for labour immigration and humanitarian responsibilities with its depressed domestic economies and the pain caused by widespread austerity measures.

Political leaders have seized voter uncertainty and fears of the future to focus on Europe’s immigration problem, speaking in nationalist and protectionist terms rather than taking it on as an EU-wide issue.

A summit of European leaders is to be held next month to discuss migration but judging by recent anti-multicultural statements from leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron, immigration is much more likely to become a political football than a topic for united, co-operative debate.

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