Blog post

Schengen and the Arab Spring

What’s at stake: Due to a series of factors (the consequences of the economic crisis, ageing population, cutbacks in the welfare state, the political

Publishing date
26 May 2011

From EMU to Schengen: integration challenges

Gavin Hewitt argues that the real tension here is that EU principles are increasingly seen as at odds with economic reality and the wishes of a majority of the people. Appeals to solidarity do not sit well with the voters. The dilemma is similar to that of the bail-outs. In order to keep the euro together Brussels is supporting policies that alienate many voters.

writes that for the coming year it may no longer be excessive sovereign debt, which presents the greatest danger to European unity but rather North African boat people. The turmoil over illegal migrants is a consequence of the Arab pro-democracy awakening on the far side of the Mediterranean and, perhaps, of the Western military intervention in Libya. According to UNHCR, more than 20,000 boat people have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa this year, almost all of them from Tunisia. More than 800 have arrived in Malta, mostly from Libya. At a European Union's interior ministers meeting in April, Italy and Malta called on the EU to activate a 2001 directive to grant temporary protection to migrants in cases of “mass influx” and to share the burden of absorbing the newcomers. But ministers flatly turned down the proposal. The European Commission described the call as “premature”, but said the EU was offering “solidarity” in other ways, including money and additional surveillance teams provided by the EU's Frontex border agency.

Hugo Prady
of the Center for European Reform argues that Silvio Berlusconi is adamant that his country needs help to manage a "human tsunami" from Libya and Tunisia. The EU has committed money, a humanitarian mission and border guards from its Frontex border agency. Nonetheless, the Italians want more help. Berlusconi's demands for “solidarity” from fellow EU countries essentially mean their agreement to take in some of the 20,000 or so migrants currently housed in tent camps on the island of Lampedusa and in the mainland region of Puglia. EU refugee rules say that migrants who claim asylum must be accepted by the first member country they reach. Exceptions can only be made in an emergency if overwhelming numbers suddenly arrive en masse. Although 20,000 is a large number of people, it is nowhere near the influx that followed the 1999 Kosovo war. Then, Albanian Kosovars fled to Western Europe in their hundreds of thousands leading EU governments to provide for some deviation to the first-country-of-arrival rule.

argues that in the euro crisis, creditors and debtors alike wondered whether they would be better off without the other. Now it is the countries of the Schengen borderless travel area that are starting to question another of Europe's great integration projects. Italy is resorting to a ruse that other countries suspect is a blatant attempt to export its problem: granting all arrivals from Tunisia temporary protection in Italy. In theory this would allow them to travel freely throughout the passport-free Schengen area, and most can be expected to take the opportunity to slip across the Alps to other countries, above all to France. When Claude Guéant, French interior minister, met with the Italian finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, he did not yield on the substance of the disagreement. Italy had a right to issue temporary permits, he said; France had a right to check whether Tunisians arriving from Italy had a proper passport as well as funds to support themselves, as stipulated under Schengen rules. Like the euro, which requires mutual trust among members about their readiness to preserve sound public finances, the Schengen area relies on mutual trust about the capacity of members to control their borders and migration flows. But Italy threatens all that: rather than acting as a dam and reservoir for migrants, it would rather be a weir, allowing the human flow to pass over it.

Peter Spiegel
argues that the decision by José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, to embrace calls for overhauling Europe’s visa-free Schengen area rules appears designed to turn the debate into a technocratic one over when and where such controls can be reinstituted. In a letter to Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, Barroso acknowledged the “temporary restoration of borders is a possibility” he was considering, but emphasised the devil is in the details. A technocratic debate could lower the temperature over the current controversy, particularly if — as many expect — the negotiations over the Schengen overhaul focus on the limited issue of defining what kind of emergency would allow such a return to border controls. But given upcoming elections in France, and growing anti-immigration sentiment across the continent, keeping the temperature low and the debate narrow may not be easy. If Barroso succeeds in finding the middle ground, it will be quite an achievement.

Jean Quatremer
argues that Italy has broken its Schengen contract at the risk of imploding the freedom of movement in a way similar to the lies of Greece about its public accounts within the euro framework. In both cases, trust – the construction engine of the EU – has been affected and will be hard to restore. Rome has failed to stop illegal arrivals, has refused to take the responsibility to send the illegal migrants back to their home countries and issued temporary residence permits to pass the baby to its neighbors.

Reforming Schengen

EU Law points to the difficulty of reforming Schengen. The Schengen border security legal framework is now part of the EU acquis. Any revision of the Schengen framework goes through a codecision procedure, where the European Parliament is a co-legislator with the Council (see art. 77, para. 2 TFEU). More, the Commission is the only body that can propose legislation on border checks, asylum and immigration (see a contrario art. 76 TFEU). Whatever France and Italy propose is of no relevance; the Member States do not have a right of initiative on these matters.

Tito Boeri
argues that reforming Schengen is the wrong response to the Lampedusa crisis. The EU badly needs more mobility of its citizens to restore growth. One out of 200 EU citizens change residence every year, compared to 7 out of 100 non-EU citizens and 5 out of 100 in the US. At the same time, cross-country unemployment differentials are much larger in Europe than across US states. Thus, Europe could benefit much more than the US from a stronger mobility and reallocation of its workforce from high to low unemployment areas. Lampedusa is actually telling us that there is no alternative to a coordinated migration policy at the EU level. All the actions taken so far by individual governments, from the Italian, the French and the German have just made things worse.

Jon Worth
argues that the problem with the protestations of Sarkozy and Berlusconi is that – knowing their appeals for assistance are going to fall on deaf ears – they step up the ‘put up the borders’ rhetoric, so much that the terms of the debate are changed, framing a re-establishment of border controls as the only viable solution (even if burden sharing is actually doing the job). With populist parties already on the rise across Europe, the Franco-Italian calls could be in danger of becoming a crescendo.

Tito Boeri
  argues that cross-country spillovers of migration policies are unavoidable. This is not the first time that they have occurred, it is just the first time that they have been so visible.
Here are a few precedents. Finland tightened up its restrictions on immigration in 2004, reacting to the most restrictive stance taken by Denmark in 2002, which was inducing many more people to go to Finland. Portugal adopted more restrictive provisions in 2001, just after a likewise restrictive reform implemented by Spain in 2000. And Ireland chose a more restrictive approach in 1999, after two reforms in the UK that had tightened up migration restrictions, respectively in 1996 and 1998.The lesson from all of these episodes is that uncoordinated national policies cannot govern migration. They can only give rise to a race to the top in putting nominal restrictions on migration, systematically violated by illegal migrants coming in from somewhere else.


About the authors

  • Jérémie Cohen-Setton

    Jérémie Cohen-Setton is a Research Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Jérémie received his PhD in Economics from U.C. Berkeley and worked previously with Goldman Sachs Global Economic Research, HM Treasury, and Bruegel. At Bruegel, he was Research Assistant to Director Jean Pisani-Ferry and President Mario Monti. He also shaped and developed the Bruegel Economic Blogs Review.

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