EU Revision Proposals For Schengen: A Demonstration Of False Hustle?

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The European Commission—the European Union’s executive organ—is slated to present proposals Wednesday responding to the Franco-Italian demand for revision of the 1985 Schengen accords. An excellent story in today’s New York Times offers a forecast of what the EC’s suggestions are likely to include. It also provides a peek into how the entire tussle over Schengen reflects the “have your cake and eat it, too” trick rightward-thrusting leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi are attempting with the treaty’s revision—and, indeed, with wider commitment of their nations to future European projects. Or as an observer quoted in the Times notes:

 “The politics of Schengen are such that no one wants to give up control of their own frontiers but everyone wants some control over other countries’ borders,” said (Hugo Brady, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform). “That’s not the best basis for a new grand bargain on the rules of the game.”

Nor for an enhanced, increasingly integrated future for the EU. The reason: Schengen is one of the few very clear, concrete, practical advantages arising from European cooperation that people see in action and appreciate on a daily basis. For all its sovereign debt-related troubles, the euro would be another example of successful collective effort within the EU—as would the remarkable savings, services, and efficiencies consumers have reaped through “Open Skies” air travel deregulation (improvements that should soon also apply to liberalized operation of international high-speed rail lines across Europe).

So if Schengen is such a gem, why are Sarkozy and Berlusconi trying to clamp it down? Because they feel the borderless zone now encompassing 25 European nations (including a few countries that aren’t part of the EU) is too vulnerable to mass illegal immigration entering from some of its most remote perimeters—including their own. Indeed, calls for a re-think of Schengen arose after Italy granted temporary resident visas to some 25,000 Tunisians who sailed to the Italian island of Lampedusa to flee unrest at home. With most of those Tunisians wanting to use those documents to cross over into France—Tunisia’ former colonial ruler—Paris refused to recognize the Italian visas as sufficient for international travel, turned back most Tunisians trying to enter France with them, and accused Rome of trying to pass its migrant buck to its neighbor. To resolve their bilateral dispute, Sarkozy and Berlusconi announced they’d recast that problem as a collective EU issue, and ordered Brussels to draw up propositions to be debated during a summit next month.

As the Times piece details, the adjustments to Schengen the EC is expected to present aren’t the end of the world—nor the treaty. They essentially posit tighter sorts of visas and controls for non-European immigrants; considerable development of the EU’s policing of its external Schengen frontiers; and the ability for member states to re-impose border checks in urgent situations—something the Times reports has been already done quietly “at least 66 times since 1995”. That will all cost lots of money, but not blow the wider unity behind Schengen or EU cooperation to bits.

Meaning, the changes should breeze through, right? Maybe not. First off, EU officials quoted in the Times piece say they’re aware much of the motivation behind the Franco-Italian demand are rooted in domestic politics that have caused both presidents to pander to the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic extreme-right. It’s far from certain leaders elsewhere in the EU will sign off on the revamp of a pillar European treaty just because a pair of their peers are engaged in electoral theatrics.

Meanwhile, if the EC proposes measures the Times details, someone will eventually point out that the principle “change” is built on a slight of hand that Berlusconi has curiously signed on to. That’s the proposal to officially, explicitly allow countries to temporarily block borders in exceptional situations. But that’s exactly what France has already done to keep Italy’s Tunisian migrants in Italy, albeit using indirect interpretation of the current treaty (a reading EU officials backed Paris on when Rome objected). Meaning, that revision would ensure future mass waves of migrants to Italy would remain Berlusconi’s problem alone–as Paris has argued in recent weeks already—only with direct post-revision approval by the treaty. We know Berlusconi is facing some heavy political and legal problems, but how can he not see the lemon he’s been sold with this?

In any case, given the plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose nature of that effort, that proposed revision of Schengen may meet significant resistance from EU members who think it’s fine as is, thanks very much. Then again, it might pass as a sign of cross-border political solidarity—and the comforting knowledge it won’t alter much of anything.