LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – France and Germany sought to drum up support among other European countries on Thursday for new rules to make it easier to suspend passport-free travel in Europe, reflecting voters’ anxiety over large-scale migration.
At a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg, French and German officials argued that member states needed more power over border rules to ensure security in the Schengen zone, where passport-free travel is allowed between 26 EU and non-EU states. France’s interior minister, Claude Gueant, said Schengen was allowing illegal migrants to reach deep into Europe.
“Schengen is not functioning in a satisfactory manner,” Gueant told reporters. “There are, according to experts, some 400,000 people who have entered (Europe) in an irregular manner … Between two and four million foreigners live clandestinely in Schengen countries.”
The push comes as centre-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy campaigns for the second, decisive round of presidential elections to be held on May 6.
Sarkozy trails his centre-left rival Francois Hollande, following a first round in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen drew nearly a fifth of the votes. The two remaining candidates will benefit if they can attract the second-round ballots of Le Pen’s supporters.
Sarkozy has in the past pledged to halve immigration and pull France out of the Schengen zone unless its external frontiers are strengthened.
REVERSING EUROPEAN INTEGRATION
Debates over immigration heated up in Europe in the last year when popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa led hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge from violence. Many attempted to cross into Europe.
The flow of illegal migrants has since slowed, but growing support for populist rhetoric across Europe, fueled in part by high unemployment and public spending cuts, has kept the issue high on the public agenda.
Critics have warned anti-immigration rhetoric was undermining one the main achievements of European integration.
“Regrettably, the winds of populism are affecting a key achievement of European integration – the free movement of persons within our borders,” European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said in a speech in Bucharest on Wednesday.
Gueant and German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich sent a letter last week to the Danish government – which holds the rotating EU presidency – responding to a proposal by the European Commission last year for new Schengen rules.
Under the Commission plan, governments would have more leeway to re-introduce border controls to counter a sudden influx of migrants. But they would have to rely on the executive’s opinion.
Wary of giving too much power to the Commission, France and Germany proposed that new rules should spell out specific circumstances in which border checks are permitted, but should give the states final say.
“The security of our citizens is something that cannot be transferred to the Commission,” Friedrich said in Luxembourg. “This is a responsibility of every country, I hope there is no doubt about that.”
Schengen involves all 27 EU countries apart from Britain, Ireland and Cyprus. Romania and Bulgaria have complied with the treaty and are expected to join it soon. Outside the EU, the zone includes Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Sebastian Moffett and Marine Hass in Brussels. Writing by Justyna Pawlak.; Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Myra MacDonald)