European countries are considering emergency measures to close the borders between them given the waves of refugees fleeing North Africa. 25 European states operate as a borderless block, under what’s known as the Schengen Agreement. As a foreigner, once you’ve entered the Schengen block you can move from country to country and no one will ask for your passport a second time. But France and Italy want to change that, albeit for different reasons.
Open borders under Schengen make working and traveling easier for Europeans and foreigners alike. And it’s a symbol of European unity. Since its inception in 1985 no one’s tried to change it. Until this week.
At a bilateral summit in Rome on Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted Schengen to stay alive. “But in order for the deal to work,” he said, “it must be reformed. Italy, he added, addressing his host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, “you are our brother.”
These brothers have been at each other’s diplomatic throats for weeks.
Dealing with the influx
Since the turmoil in North Africa began, Italy has taken in tens of thousands of refugees. Rome has declared an emergency, and repeatedly turned to the rest of Europe for help. Roberto Maroni is Italy’s Interior Minister. He said in March that coming to Italy’s aid was an obligation.
“All the allied countries, all the countries from the EU,” he said, “have to share the burden of the refugees.”
But France has resisted as has Germany. They argue that Italy, as the country of entry for these refugees, must deal with the influx alone.
Italy turned around and gave 20 thousand mostly Tunisian refugees temporary residency visas – which, in theory, would let them travel freely within the Schengen zone. And many tried. But French officials near the border with Italy threw up a technical barrier. Prefect Francis Lamy said refugees might be carrying new Italian visas, but they would have to be carrying a lot of money, as well.
“That would amount to some 5,000 or 6,000 euros for a three month stay in France,” Lamy said. “They also need a valid passport. Under EU policy we have a right to impose additional conditions.”
Lamy was interviewed by Deutschewelle following a French crackdown on thousands of refugees trying to enter from Italy by train. That incident was what led Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to hang up the gloves and meet.
After the leaders’ summit in Rome on Tuesday, Berlusconi was vague about what a reformed Schengen agreement might look like.
“We believe that in exceptional circumstances Schengen should be applied differently,” he said.
A sudden flood of refugees from Africa would be one exception. In such cases, if all countries were to agree, governments would be able to close their borders. Or, as the French have already done, they could add more conditions for letting non-citizens in. This change would benefit France, but not Italy, as the country of arrival for the refugees.
In a letter to the European Commission this week, neither Berlusconi nor Sarkozy were specific about how they want to reform Europe’s treaty on the free movement of people. But Rome will surely lobby for some provision obliging other members to demonstrate more solidarity. For now, Italy remains stuck, trying to figure out what to do with the thousands of refugees with new temporary visas but nowhere to go. An Italian TV reporter asked one refugee near the French border what his plans were.
“What do you want to do, go back to Tunisia?” the reporter asked.
“No,” the man answered in French, pointing a finger at his head like gun. “I’d rather die.”