French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday (26 April) asked Brussels to make changes to the treaty establishing the Schengen border-free area. The proposed changes strengthen the hand of member countries and undermine the role of the European Commission.
Sarkozy and Berlusconi met in Rome to defuse the Tunisia migrant crisis, which had strained the relations between the two founding members of the EU for several months.
The two leaders signed a letter, addressed to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso, which criticised the present governance of the Schengen space.
The letter also proposes new language that would make it easier for Schengen member countries to introduce checks at their internal frontiers. At present, member states are only allowed to temporarily introduce such checks in the event of a serious threat to public order. The proposed text now speaks of of “exceptional difficulties”.
Apparently, such a text would allow France to introduce border checks in situations such as massive influxes of Tunisian refugees or Roma from Eastern Europe.
Blow to the Commission
The letter also criticises the Schengen evaluation mechanism, a recent novelty introduced by the European Commission, according to which the EU’s executive body assumes control of the application of Schengen rules.
A more ambitious legislative package needs to be introduced this year, Berlusconi and Sarkozy state. They further insist that the evaluation procedure should involve member states more heavily.
Sarkozy told journalists yesterday that Schengen must be reformed if it is to survive.
“Who manages Schengen?” Sarkozy asked, implying that national interior ministers should have a say in the proposed update of the EU borderless area.
Sarkozy also appeared to reiterate France’s opposition to enlarging Schengen to the EU’s most recent newcomers, Bulgaria and Romania (see ‘Background’).
“If a failing state controls other countries’ borders, what do we do?” he asked.
At a separate press event held almost simultaneously, the Commission clearly indicated that it was open to the idea of introducing changes to Schengen legislation.
“We are in a situation of misunderstanding between two member states,” said Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly, who added that there was a need for rules to be more clearly interpreted.
“We must avoid having holes in the system,” Bailly also said. He admitted that legal texts had to evolve, almost repeating the words of Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who said a few days ago that “all treaties inevitably grow old”.
The Commission appears to have changed dramatically its previous stance of sticking to the letter to the Schengen acquis.
In early April, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that in order to make use of the treaty’s extraordinary provision, France would have to evoke a serious threat to public order. “But this is not the case here,” she clearly stated back then.