he recent actions of Sarkozy and Berlusconi in suspending the Schengen treaty in response to their inability to accept their responsibilities to Tunisian refugees has thrown into sharp relief an attack on one of the founding free movement principles of the EU and a much deeper schism in the stated aim of the European Union, as early as the Tampere Council in 1999, to create a common asylum and immigration policy.
At the time of writing, Denmark too has, in response to pending elections, suspended aspects of Schengen, a Treaty which ensured free movement for EU citizens within its area. Schengen was one of the aspects of the single internal markets which brought with it four freedoms of movement: for people, goods, services and capital. These freedoms have, whether you support the EU or not, brought tangible and unique benefits to EU citizens. If you take out of this equation the free movement of people, you create an imbalance towards the capitalist and free market aspects of the EU‘s foundation.
There are many aspects of Schengen which I as an NGO activist in the 1990s was extremely critical of - particularly the way that security arrangements were made on an undemocratic intergovernmental level. It was these security aspects that Mrs Thatcher liked and opted into in the 1980s while depriving British citizens of the free movement open to the then majority of EU citizens.
Behind the actions of Sarkozy, Berlusconi and the hopelessly far-right influenced Danish government lies political opportunism at its most extreme. Thousands of desperate Tunisian asylum seekers have been trafficked across the Mediterranean, mainly to Lampedusa and Malta, because of corrupt Italian migration policy and the reactions of a desperate President who closed the French border on the grounds of public order.
When I spoke on behalf of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament in the days following these actions I said that while this was an opportunistic attack on Schengen, it threw into sharp relief a much more fundamental problem of asylum and immigration for Europe. The refugee crisis from North Africa came at a time when asylum numbers were falling. The imperative of managing a common migration policy was also put on the back burner due to austerity and the fact that the EU today has 21 out of 27 right and centre right governments.
The missed opportunity which lies behind the Schengen crisis is the stated aim of EU Member States at the historic Council meeting in Tampere to create a common asylum and immigration policy for the EU. For those on the progressive left, this would have been an opportunity to create a fair, just and consistent asylum policy, rather than the present system of restrictive measures. The recent opting out of the UK government on human trafficking was one extraordinary example of the UK's conduct in Justice and Home Affairs policy in recent years.
Today the irony is that the right and centre right of European politics make constant calls for ‘burden sharing' of asylum seekers and ‘solidarity'. Yet it is the right since Tampere that has consistently blocked and opposed the building of a common asylum system based on fair principles. Today legislation is currently going through the European Parliament which has equal power to the Member States in this area, following the Lisbon Treaty, to create such a policy. The reason there is no burden sharing and no coherent asylum policy in the EU is because of this continual delay.
In a similar vein the right want to pretend that non-EU immigration can be turned off like a tap and do not understand the global realities and the need, even in a time of European austerity, for some immigration from beyond Europe. On the one hand, the right know that people will come; they don't want the policies to deal with it yet.
What is needed is a commitment from the EU to allow the European Parliament and European Commission to do its work in putting together the building blocks of a common migration policy on asylum. This means progress must be made on the issues of entry procedures, integration, and family reunification. On immigration policy the principle of equal treatment between workers here in the EU and those coming into the EU must be upheld and workers coming to the EU must have decent treatment where legal roots being opened up can in many cases diminish the irregular immigration which is prevalent in many parts of Europe. The lack of action within the EU in building a common immigration and asylum policy has allowed opportunistic governments like those of Denmark, Italy and France to mercilessly use the issue of immigration before elections. Other countries like the UK and Germany have put forward an opportunistic and shameless critique of immigration and diversity to gain favour before elections. Cameron and Merkel performed the same act within months of each other; again the scapegoats were new immigrants, the free movement of eastern Europeans and the second, third, fourth and fifth generations following the non-white immigration to Europe of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s.
As the Socialists' spokesperson in this area, I have been determined to maintain a robust line for our political group which covers the entire centre left parties in the EU and together in a progressive alliance with the Greens, GUE, and some Liberals we have already won some key asylum legislative victories. We are determined to ensure that Romania and Bulgaria are able to join the Schengen area. It is important to be courageous on this political issue.