EU proposes changes that would undermine borderless model

BRUSSELS – bruised by random pandemic border checks and an ongoing crisis with Belarus over migrants on its eastern border, the European Union is proposing changes that could undermine one of its greatest successes – the free movement of people people within the block.

Under new rules proposed by the European Union on Tuesday, member states could introduce border controls whenever they want, in the face of unforeseen and predictable events. They could then extend them almost indefinitely, although such checks were once emergency measures in what is supposed to be a borderless zone.

Member states could also suspend some protections for asylum seekers if neighboring countries orchestrate migratory flows to the bloc’s borders, as Belarus has done in recent months to member countries like Poland, Lithuania and the United States. Latvia.

Together, the proposed changes – which have yet to be approved by national governments and the European Parliament, which could take several months – would redefine how the world’s largest passport-less region works. They are set to face a heated debate in the European Parliament.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, which presented the proposals on Tuesday, said the changes would help member countries better respond to serious issues related to migration and the pandemic.

“The 2015 refugee crisis, the wave of terrorist attacks on European soil and the global Covid-19 pandemic have all put the Schengen area under pressure,” said Margaritis Schinas, vice-chair of the committee, saying reference to the passport-free zone which includes most of the EU members and a handful of other European countries.

Many agree that the rules governing the passport-free zone need to be reformed. But critics and analysts argue that by pushing forward on Tuesday’s proposals, the European Union will curtail one of its main achievements, the free movement of people and goods which, for many, sums up the essence of the project. European. The changes also represent, critics say, significant reductions in humanitarian protections.

In March 2020, as the pandemic set in, EU countries reinstated border controls that had long been removed, closing each other in an uncoordinated fashion that disrupted the bloc’s internal market, its supply chains and the movement of people.

“There was an immediate return to national borders and to national thinking, as opposed to a European and unified approach, which one would expect after decades of working together in an area without borders,” said Marie De Somer, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Center based in Brussels.

The commission’s plan tries to prevent such hasty and poorly coordinated action. Under the proposed rules, Member States would be subject to more scrutiny when they justify the need for border controls.

But Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Tuesday that a two-year cap on border controls could also be extended. “You never know that a threat only lasts two years,” she said. “It could also be longer. “

Tanja Fajon, a left-wing Slovenian lawmaker in the European Parliament, said the new rules risked eroding basic rights of migrants, including the right to asylum. “We are moving forward with more restrictive rules, which is not at all the original idea of ​​Schengen,” said Ms Fajon.

And Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green lawmaker in the European Parliament, said the provisions controlling the movement of migrants without permission to be in the bloc could increase the risks of racial profiling.

The bloc has been working to craft a common approach to migration since the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million people, mostly Syrians, sought asylum in the European Union. Internal divisions over how to divide and deal with asylum claims have weakened the EU’s position, critics say, allowing countries just outside the bloc, like Turkey, Morocco or more recently Belarus, to use migrants and asylum seekers as leverage against European countries.

The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, however, brought something new: a united position of EU states, which supported Poland in its firm response to migrants at its border. Polish border guards responded with water cannons and pushed the migrants back across the border, rights groups said, causing little reaction from other member states.

Now some European leaders see the European Union as a fortress under attack from various places outside. Tuesday’s proposals represent a major victory for countries like Greece and Cyprus, which claim Turkey used migrants as weapons, and Spain, which accused Morocco of engaging in similar behavior.

Reforms to the Schengen area, which includes 26 countries, are also a priority for France, which begins its presidency of the European Union on January 1.

Almost 1.7 million people live in one Schengen country and work in another, while around 3.5 million people cross an internal border every day. Undermining the passport-free zone would not only be a political risk, but could also have huge economic consequences for the bloc, said Ms Fajon, the Slovenian lawmaker.

Six countries, including France, Austria and Germany, have put in place supposedly temporary internal border controls for years, for reasons of health emergencies, terrorist threats or the movement of “irregular” migrants – those who have not been granted asylum or any other travel authorization – between member countries. The new proposal would de facto allow all national governments to maintain internal border controls indefinitely.

Under the new rules, Member States facing ‘instrumentation of migration’ at their border will also be able to extend surveillance, including with drones and motion sensors; process most asylum applications directly at the border; and extend the registration period for asylum claims from 10 days to four weeks.

The committee proposed similar measures earlier this month for countries neighboring Belarus – Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

The new rules could be triggered when a country bordering the European Union is found to ‘artificially create and facilitate irregular migration, using migration flows as a tool for political ends, to destabilize the European Union and its states members “.

Ms Strik, the Dutch lawmaker, said the definition was “very vague” and could be relied on too easily. “I already see the Greek government saying, ‘The Turks are doing the same to us,’” she said.

For Ms Fajon, the Slovenian legislator, the principle of a borderless zone is hostage to a failure to create a common migration policy. “We are in a vicious cycle,” she said.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reports.


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