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Putting Limits on a Europe Without Borders

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2012-05-02-border.jpg

Passport-free travel is one of the perks of living in the EU, so what sort of crisis would constitute a valid reason for lifting that prerogative? MEPs have been asked to consider in what exceptional circumstances member states within the Schengen area would be allowed to reintroduce internal border checks.

When the Schengen area came into being, it was hailed as a milestone in the European Union's history. For the first time Europeans were able to travel without passports from one country to another without any hassle. It was not just about making travelling easier, but also about encouraging mobility and creating economic opportunities. Even so, there were concerns that it would be more difficult to control trafficking, illegal migration and terrorism, which is why the UK and Ireland decided to opt out.

Over the years much has been done to address those concerns. Apart from strengthening the EU's external borders, there is also more cooperation on crime. Europol, the European police force, was created as was the Schengen Information System to exchange information on wanted and suspected criminals. Extradition procedures have also been simplified.

Still, member states have questioned how effective the system is in dealing with sudden crises. In 2011 both Denmark and France temporarily introduced internal border checks in response to fears about the influx of illegal immigrants. There was concern that the Arab Spring would lead to more people trying to migrate to Europe. This is why French president Nicolas Sarkozy instigated a request to the European Commission to review the governance of Schengen, in particular the rules on reintroducing controls at internal borders in exceptional circumstances.

It is now up to the Parliament and Council to weigh up the Commission proposal that member states be allowed to immediately reintroduce internal border controls if a large number of non-EU citizens cross the external border, in cases where it is judged necessary to safeguarding the Union's public policy and internal security. If the conditions for reintroducing internal border checks are too rigid, it could make it difficult to tackle terrorism and international crime. However, if they are too lax, there is a risk of losing the advantages of a Europe without borders as member states would be able to close their borders on a whim, causing real harm to the economy.

As always in Parliament, a committee was put in charge of scrutinising the proposed regulation in order to come up with a recommendation to MEPs. In this case it was the civil liberties committee, which on 25 April voted to approve the report by Romanian Liberal-Democrat Renate Weber, which argues against adding additional grounds to existing exceptional provisions, including migrations flows. Instead Weber calls for a more collective decision-making process if there are serious problems with the management of the EU's external borders.

Of course this saga is far from over. Parliament as a whole must still endorse the direction set by the civil liberties committee, after which the final form of the regulation will remain to be negotiated between the Parliament and Council. All agree however that the stakes are high, with the future of the Schengen area linked inextricably to the wider future of the EU.