Citing increased threat of terror attacks, countries with external European Union borders are calling for the extension of temporary border controls – a change supported by Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga.
Sommaruga, who spoke just before the EU interior ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Friday, said that as some countries – including France and Germany – had already announced their intention to retain border checks past the initial deadline of November 2017, it was necessary to agree on common regulations “to which everyone must adhere”.
The justice minister acknowledged that while open borders and the free circulation of people throughout the EU’s Schengen Areaexternal link are important benefits, “we have a situation that has changed over the past few years, and it is therefore important that everyone plays by the same rules”.
Sommaruga noted that while Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Area, the Swiss situation is different from that of EU member states because it is not part of the EU customs union. As such, Switzerland can already instate border controls based on “suspicion”. Of course, she added, “in Switzerland, we continually analyse whether other measures are necessary and meaningful.”
She also stressed the importance of exchange of information between prosecuting authorities and intelligence services when it comes to fighting terrorism.
In light of the great influx of migrants arriving in Europe during the summer and fall of 2015, some EU member states reintroduced border controls, which are normally done away with in the Schengen Area. The decision was notably justified by citing the security of exterior EU borders in Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
The European Commission originally announced in May that these temporary checks were to be terminated by November of this year, as migratory pressure had eased.
But Reuters reported on Friday that French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said he wanted to extend his country’s border controls by six more months out of a concern for terrorism. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière was likewise quoted as saying that, while Germany is still committed to the freedom of movement, “at the moment, we cannot do without checks."
The citation of a terrorist threat, rather than migration concerns, as the justification for the prolongation means that the countries have greater legal freedom to reintroduce the controls, without waiting for authorisation from the European Commission.
However, others expressed concern that the extended checks would snowball into indefinite controls, threatening free movement and the European economy.
"We share the concerns of some member states on the issue of security," said EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, "but Schengen is alive, and must remain alive. If Schengen dies, Europe will die."
Resettlement of migrants
On Friday, the interior ministers also discussed European Commission migration proposals to provide viable alternatives for vulnerable peoples in need of protection. One such proposal aimed at resettling refugees recognised by the UN Refugee Agencyexternal link, including those from North Africa. Switzerland already has a resettlement programme for migrants from neighbouring countries of Syria, and is ready to consider accommodating, within the existing legal framework, those stranded in Libya.
However, Sommaruga emphasised that resettlement should not be considered the only solution to migration in Europe, as many migrants from North Africa come in search of work, in addition to those classed as vulnerable. She added that while Europe should engage more actively in this region of the world, Libya's migration problems could only be truly resolved by political stabilisation at home.