How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

Member comments

  1. maybe the duty of european countries is be to respect the geneva convention (for real) and take care of the refugees their own actions create

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Ukraine’s Zelensky urges Italy to keep seizing Russian yachts and villas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Italian lawmakers on Tuesday to stop their country from being a playground for Russia's ultra-rich.

Ukraine's Zelensky urges Italy to keep seizing Russian yachts and villas

Italy’s MPs gave a standing ovation to Zelensky as he delivered the latest of a series of video speeches to Western parliaments in an effort to drum up support following Russia’s invasion of his country on February 24th.

“Don’t be the place that welcomes these people,” Zelensky told lawmakers in Italy, which has long  been a top holiday destination for Russia’s elite, known to own luxury villas from Tuscany to the island of Sardinia and moor superyachts in the country’s ports.

“We must freeze them all: freeze their properties, their accounts, their yachts, from Scheherazade to the smallest. We must freeze the assets of all those in Russia who have the power to make decisions,” he said.

READ ALSO: Italy seizes Russian oligarch’s €65 million superyacht

Rome has so far seized over 800 million euros worth of assets belonging to EU-sanctioned Russian oligarchs, including a 530-million-euro yacht, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after Zelensky’s speech.

Italy recently urged other countries to move quicker on sanctions, while Italian authorities themselves are under public and political pressure to seize more Russian oligarchs’ wealth in the country.

The ownership of the multi-million-dollar mega yacht Scheherazade, docked on the Tuscan coast, is currently the source of speculation that it belongs to a Russian oligarch, or even perhaps President Vladimir Putin himself.

There was initial concern that Italy would hold back from enforcing tough sanctions on Moscow due to longstanding relationships between Italian political powers and the Kremlin.

The two countries’ ties date back to the Cold War. But things changed in 2021, when Prime Minister Mario Draghi took office with a strongly pro-European, pro-NATO stance.

Though several of the parties in Draghi’s coalition government have close ties with Russia, from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), all have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Italy slams ‘odious’ threats by Russia over sanctions

Italian MPs during the address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Photo by REMO CASILLI / POOL / AFP

Italy has also taken in 60,000 Ukrainians, mostly women and children, who have fled their homeland.

Zelensky thanked Italy for the support it has given his country, saying: “Dozens of (Ukrainian) children are in your hospitals and we are grateful.”

“In Italy the first child has been born to a mother who was forced to flee from a war provoked by a single person.

“You have shared our pain from the first day, helping the Ukrainians with your warmth and your strength”

Zelensky – whose speeches to countries’ parliaments are carefully targeted at the local audience – also raised the spectre of mass migration to Italy from countries hit by a food crisis caused by the war.

Historically, Ukraine has been a grain-exporting breadbasket for the world.

It also supplied many aid agencies, with the UN’s World Food Programme buying nearly half of its global wheat supplies from it before the war.

FACT CHECK: Did PM Draghi really say Italy should think about rationing?

“We don’t know when we will have the harvest, and if we can export,” Zelensky said.

“We can’t export corn, oil, wheat, so many products that are absolutely necessary for life.

“And this also affects your neighbours across the sea. Prices are rising, tens of millions of people will need help off your shores,” he said.

Italy has been on the front line of migration into Europe for years, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflicts or climate change attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing in recent years from the coasts of north Africa.