13/05/2011

The Arab spring: tormenter of European integration?

 

Set up in 1985 as one of the major steps forward for European integration, the Schengen Agreement allows individuals to travel freely throughout a large number of EU Member States. The ‘Schengen area’ currently regroups 25 EU Member States and is, to this day, one of the main successes of the European Project. However, the future of this leading European initiative is bleak: European Member States have chosen to revise, to everyone’s surprise, the limits of human mobility into and within the EU set out by the Schengen Agreement.

This development comes in the midst of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing conflict in Libya, which had triggered in recent weeks important waves of North African refugees in Europe’s Mediterranean ports. Indeed, during the month of February alone, approximately ten thousand migrants, mainly of Tunisian origin, reached the Southern Italian port of Lampedusa, a traditionally important point of arrival for migrants in the Mediterranean (see Frontex Press Release 24-03-2011). As a result of ongoing instability in North Africa, a feeling of nervousness has spread amongst EU Member States, fuelling neighbourly feuds between France and Italy, fellow Schengen signatories, over the attribution by Italy of temporary ‘humanitarian’ residence permits to 25,000 Tunisian migrants. In the case of Denmark, pre-Schengen border controls have been immediately reinstated, which has been strongly criticized amongst the 27 Member States (Danish officials insist on the rise in crime and arms trade as the reason for these measures, but its timing suggests a clear influence of events in North Africa – see EuropeanVoice, 12-05-2011).

Initiated by France and Italy, recent requests for a temporary return to national borders and the possibility of isolating any Member State on Europe’s fringes considered incapable of managing efficiently incoming migratory flows into the EU have gained the support of a majority of European Member States (an extraordinary meeting of ministers of interior was held on May 12 in Brussels to discuss possible revisions of Schengen in light of events in North Africa). This issue will of course have to be discussed by European Prime Ministers in June before approval by the European Parliament, where such a damaging development for European integration will likely face ferocious opposition. Indeed, these revisions will reinforce national powers while stripping, if only temporarily, the European Union of some of its hard-earned competences.

The revision of the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which constitutes one of the cornerstones of the European integration process, will cost the EU dearly. Already, European reactions – or lack of – to the Arab revolutions had raised vital questions over the limitations of a united European voice and the insistence of European leaders to think national. Going forth with such drastic plans to rethink the freedoms of European mobility will reinforce in the Arab World the ‘European fortress’ feeling, while blowing out locally a weakened flame of European integration.

 

Andrew Bower