Notes From the Margins…

The End of Schengen?

  • May 07, 2011
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Is Europe’s horror of ‘immigration’  paving the way for the unravelling of one of the key components of European integration – the ‘borderless’ Schengen Area?   It’s certainly beginning to look that way. Last week the EU Home Office Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom announced forthcoming discussions to introduce a ‘temporary reintroduction of limited internal border controls under very exceptional circumstances’ in order to ‘safeguard the stability of the Schengen Area.’

These ‘exceptional circumstances’ refer to the arrival of some 30,000 migrants from Tunisia this year, and the decision to revisit the Schengen Agreement is the result of pressure from Italy and France, the two countries that have been most affected by this influx.

The reappearance of migrant ‘boatpeople’ in the Mediterranean is partly due to Tunisia’s ongoing political and economic problems and partly to the fact that the Tunisian and Libyan dictatorships which once acted as Europe’s offshore border police can no longer fulfil this role.

There is some irony in the fact that the initial calls to reimpose national border controls have come from France, which did so much to promote the Schengen Agreement, and Italy, for whom the removal of restrictions on movement has been a key factor in Italian post-war industrialisation.

Cornered by Milan prosecutors, Silvio Berlusconi has been under more pressure than usual from his xenophobic Northern League allies to stem this ‘invasion’ .  He initially attempted to do so, with characteristic cynicism, by issuing temporary residence permits which allowed Tunisians on Lampedusa to go to France, where many of them wanted to go.

This then created political problems between Italy and France, and also for Berlusconi’s pal Sarkozy, whose prospects of re-election next year are threatened by Marine Le Pen’s resurgent Front National.   Sarkozy, like Berlusconi, attempted to turn anti-immigrant sentiment to his own political advantage,  by blocking trains bringing Tunisian migrants into France and barring entry to those without any means of supporting themselves.

Now two of Europe’s most cynical rightwing politicians have joined together to call for a revision of the Schengen Agreement – and the EU appears ready to go along with it because, according to Malmstrom ‘ We need European leadership that can stand up against populist and simplistic solutions.’

European ‘leadership’ would indeed be a good idea, but it is difficult to see how ‘populist and simplistic solutions’ can be countered by pandering to the exclusionary agenda emanating from the far right and introducing the ‘temporary’ reintroduction of border controls for the sole purpose of keeping out Tunisian migrants.

This would be an unwelcome and reactionary development – and not only for the migrants themselves.

The  Schengen Agreement has had dire consequences for refugees and undocumented migrants as a result of the ‘compensatory’ hardening of its external borders that were established partly to shut them out, and there are many aspects of the Schengen security and surveillance apparatus that need to be opened to democratic scrutiny.

But Schengen  is also a unique and extraordinarily successful historical experiment, in which 25 countries have voluntarily dismantled their mutual borders to allow unrestricted freedom of movement across the continent for nearly half a billion people.   These ‘soft’ aspects of Schengen represent a positive model in a world that is increasingly obsessed with reinforcing its national boundaries in an attempt to keep unwanted people out.

It would be a political disaster for these developments to be halted or reversed by Berlusconi and Sarkozy.

The arrival of 30,000 migrants  certainly represents a logistical problem for the EU ‘border countries’ that constitute their first port of call and a humanitarian crisis that requires a common European response.

But  it is worth keeping that emergency in perspective.   Since the Libyan uprisings began, some 70,000 Tunisian migrants have returned from Libya to Tunisia, a country with an unemployment rate of 14 percent.

Despite this, Tunisians have provided shelter and sanctuary to 200,000 refugees who have fled the fighting in Libya, a population that includes sub-Saharan African and Asian workers as well as Libyans displaced by the fighting.

In March this year, the NGO EngagingCulturesTunisia helped feed 10,000 migrants in a single day in a camp near the Libyan border.   One of its volunteers has described how ‘The overwhelming amount of food came from private individuals, extended families, neighborhoods, Tunisian business, schools and community groups’.

According to CNN,  ‘Aid organizations say Tunisians living in the area have been handing out food, drinks and clothing to refugees, even inviting refugees to stay in their homes in a spontaneous show of solidarity’.

All this has taken place while rich and powerful Europe has been cowering at the prospect of a ‘Biblical exodus’ from North Africa.

While French bombs fall on Libya, French police harrass homeless Tunisians sleeping in the parks of Paris and Marseille.  And now Europe’s politicians look set to capitulate to the opportunism of Berlusconi and Sarkozy – and the rancid nationalism of Umberto Bossi and Marine Le Pen – by  reversing one of the fundamental tenets of European integration: the free movement of people.

And once this box is opened, it may prove  difficult to close.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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