With their governments locked in conflict over how to deal with around 25,000 of Tunisians fleeing the chaos of their homeland for stability in Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Italian opposite Silvio Berlusconi banded together Tuesday in the common cause of dumping their problem squarely in the European Union’s lap. Winding up a summit covering a variety of topics, the two leaders announced they’d petition fellow European leaders to revise the 26 year-old Schengen treaty abolishing border controls among signatory nations, and demand the accord be muscled it up to deal with a feared surge in immigration issuing from “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Mediterranean—whether anyone else wants that or not.
The move came after weeks of bilateral tensions produced by Italy’s decision to give temporary residence visas to some 25,000 Tunisians who fled turbulence at home by seeking refuge on the Italian island Lampedusa. Those permits transformed the illegal Tunisian immigrants into documented Italian residents, allowing them to travel anywhere within the Schengen zone—a fact Paris bitterly resented, given France’s singular attraction as Tunisia’s former colonial ruler. As a result, France accused Italy of conniving to pass its Tunisian problem on to other Schenegen countries (read “France”), then refused to honor the disputed residence visas unless holders could prove they had money to sustain themselves (without working) for several months. Italy protested in turn by claiming Paris had violated the Schengen treaty—one of the pillars of EU unity. Finally, last weekend, Sarkozy let it be known he might officially suspend articles of Schengen in retaliation—a threat that also advanced his domestic political objective of seducing voters from the immigration-hating extreme-right ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
It was in that tense atmosphere that Sarkozy traveled to Rome on Tuesday. Once there, he promptly decided to do what he’d accused Berlusconi of having done all along by joining in the Italian’s attempt to turn the refugee exodus into someone else’s problem. The pair said they’d demand EU officials prepare collective measures to deal with the immigration challenge they’re grappling with as one potentially affecting all member states. To that end, they’re seeking provisions of the text written for an original five members to be substantially revised and updated to reflect the realities of a zone now composed of 25 nations spanning the entire European continent—even if only two of those 25 countries are unhappy with the status quo.
“We want Schengen to live, but for Schengen to live, Schengen must be reformed,” Sarkozy said at his joint press conference with Berlusconi. “We want its text reinforced, we want its evaluation reinforced, we want greater means to (control) the borders of the Schengen area.”
And that, Sarkozy suggested, was all part of dealing with an evolving world the EU responds to in other ways when it must. “We have the euro, we have reformed the European economy,” Sarkozy explained. “We would like to see the same thing done to Schengen,”
That sounds logical—only, what does it mean? With only Italy—and now France—making noise about Schengen’s supposed weaknesses, their joint objective is apparently to cajole countries that aren’t on the Mediterranean front-line to step up and help to seal what’s in fact is the southern border of the entire zone. How that happens remains a mystery. So, too, is how modification of Schengen would change the current Franco-Italian situation motivating the revision push in the first place. The recent French decision to halt in-bound trains carrying Tunisians with newly minted Italian residence permits was judged legal under the current text by EU authorities responding to protests from Rome. Given that, what does Paris gain through a tightened up Schengen whose current version has allowed France to protect what it calls its national interests?
It may well be Tuesday’s announcement was designed more to lament a problem–and redirect blame elsewhere–than it was aimed to bring about substantial modification of an essential EU accord. Because the reality is, the tussle over the Tunisian situation is more about short-term electoral posturing than long-term problems with Schengen. Both Sarkozy and Berlusconi are facing increasingly stormy political situations at home, and both have repeatedly made gestures to their extreme-right as ballast in those storms—frequently taking the hard line on issues like crime and immigration as they do. Their joint stand demanding a tightening of Schengen similarly plays to that hard- and extreme-right crowd, which has traditionally considered collective EU agreements like a border-free zone and the euro as criminal surrender of national sovereignty.
That kind of short-term domestic political jockeying isn’t usually sufficient to provoke far-reaching change across the broader EU, even when it’s being done in tandem by two very high-profile leaders. Concrete discussion on Schengen modification during the summit of EU heads of state in June should provide an idea of whether Tuesday’s call for fundamental revision will actually lead to change, or whether it was just another act of Franco-Italian political theater by two of Europe’s most captivating actors.