France and Italy request Schengen reforms
(27 April 2011)
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spoke on 26 April 2011, expressing their concerns over the European Union’s Schengen treaty in light of the recent arrival of migrants fleeing political turmoil in North Africa. The heads of France and Italy have sent a letter to EU officials calling for the reform of the existing treaty, citing the potential of an immigration crisis in the Mediterranean region. It is reported that the letter has stated the need to “examine the possibility to temporarily re-establish controls within [Schengen] borders in the case of exceptional difficulties.”
The Schengen Agreement was reached in June 1985, when leaders from Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands met in Schengen, Luxembourg. Ten years later the agreement was brought in to effect, with other EU and non-EU countries gradually entering into the Schengen zone, now comprising 25 countries, with Britain and Ireland being notable exceptions. The agreement removes most immigration controls at internal borders within the EU. It also created a single external border, and a shared information database, the Schengen Information System (SIS). Along with the Euro currency, the Schengen Agreement is seen as one of the most significant unification projects for the EU. More recently, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen zone has been blocked by various other EU countries. Greece has also come under pressure due to its inability to manage migration at its border with Turkey. Currently the Schengen Agreement can only be suspended due to issues of national security, and has typically occurred during large international sporting events such as the World Cup.
Relations between France and Italy are reported to be at a low point, following Italy’s decision to grant visas to many migrants who have recently arrived from Tunisia, which allows them to travel throughout the Schengen zone. France has been turning many migrants back who have been unable to prove they can support themselves financially, and had also recently closed a border crossing temporarily to trains carrying migrants travelling from Italy. Both governments are also under pressure from their right wing parties who want to see further restrictive measures put in place to stop migrants entering the EU. Both France and Italy are also looking to strengthen collaboration with the Tunisian government in stopping potential migrants from leaving Tunisia, while the two EU nations have agreed to joint sea and air patrols.
Countries such as France and Italy may have expressed concern over the amount of migrants arriving – approximately 25,000 since January, predominantly to Italy and Malta – and have tried to frame the current migrations as an emergency situation, but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently stated that many more migrants remained in North African countries. The vast majority of the estimated 665,000 migrants fleeing Libya for example, most of who were working there, have entered through the neighbouring countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Niger and Algeria. Only 5,182 have reached Italy and Malta. This has resulted in most of the migratory pressure resting on North African countries.
Source: ‘France and Italy push for reform of Schengen treaty’, BBC News, 26 April 2011; ‘France and Italy in call to close EU borders in wake of Arab protests’, Ian Traynor and John Hooper, Guardian, 27 April 2011; ‘Analysis: European fears unfounded’, Scotsman, 27 April 2011