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European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs
Strengthening the area without internal border controls to guarantee free movement
Brussels, 16 September 2011
Before I present to you the proposals on Schengen, let me put some figures over the words ''Schengen area'', to give you a clearer picture of the magnitude of this fantastic project and its importance to the border control-free zone.
The Schengen zone represents an area of cooperation including 25 countries, with almost 43 000 km of sea and 8 000 km of land borders and counting a population of around 400 million people.
Every year European citizens make over 1.25 billion journeys as tourists and to visit friends and relatives all over Europe without obstacles at internal borders. The introduction of Schengen Visa has also simplified life for millions of third country citizens who can enter one country and travel freely throughout the Schengen area for up to three months.
Moreover an area without internal border controls brings huge benefits to the economy. Between 2004 and 2007, the boost to labour mobility from new countries joining the European Union increased the Union’s gross domestic product by around €40 billion.
These figures are just one example that shows how tangible, popular and successful the Schengen achievement is, and the importance it has for our daily lives and for our economies.
This huge achievement of the European Union is now suffering from some weaknesses that have to be remedied quickly, if we want to guarantee its future. Most of these weaknesses stem from the intergovernmental approach at the core of its governance and of its decision-making system.
This approach was valid at the early stage, when there were only 6 countries involved, but it proves to be inefficient today, with 25 members and probably more to come in the future.
If we want to make sure Schengen is ready for the current and future challenges we need to shift from an inter-governmental approach to a European-based system, where decisions are taken at EU level. This shift will require some courage, especially in this difficult moment of crisis, when Member States tend to be more national interest-oriented, but in the end moving to a truly European approach will benefit all countries and all citizens.
What we are proposing today is to amend the Schengen Border Code in two ways:
1) Strengthening Schengen's Governance
To guarantee the consistent management of the Schengen area we have to create an EU based system that allows us to efficiently evaluate and monitor implementation of the Schengen rules and remedy shortcomings and deficiencies immediately.
At the heart of this approach there are announced and unannounced visits at the border by Commission-led teams with experts from other Member States and FRONTEX, to verify the application of the Schengen rules. This would allow us to identify very early if there are any problems or shortcomings so that we could, together with the Member State in question, elaborate an action plan and mobilise all the tools that we have at our disposal in the European Union (our funds, our Agencies, experts from the Institutions and from the Member States). We also want to introduce is a Schengen ''health check'' that will take place twice a year. We will do this by stimulating the debate in the Council and in the European Parliament on the functioning of Schengen based on a Commission overview.
2) A new EU-based decision making regime
Currently the power to decide to reintroduce border controls lies with the Member States. Since the free movement of persons within the Schengen area without internal borders is a common European good available for all persons living in this area, the EU Commission's view is that it should require a decision to reintroduce border controls to be taken at European level if this free movement is likely to be affected.
The grounds for the reintroduction of border controls will remain unchanged, as there are today: checks can only be reintroduced only in case of a serious threat to public policy or to internal security. This doesn't change. What changes is how and who. Under the new regime, a decision on the reintroduction of internal borders controls for foreseeable events (a major sport event, a G8 etc) would be taken by the Commission (who would be alerted by the concerned Member Sates) backed by qualified majority of Member States. This normally functions very well and these events are normally planned very well in advance.
Of course, should there be an unexpected event, a terrorist attack or an emergency of any kind, Member States retain the possibility to quickly close their borders. They can do so for 5 days. Beyond that, they have to ask the Commission and ask for a prolongation. That prolongation would then be a joint decision, taken via 'comitology' procedure, based on a proposal from the Commission.
Persistent Serious Deficiencies
This new EU-based regime will be also crucial in cases where persistent serious deficiencies lead to critical situations, for example, if a Member State fails to adequately protect a part of the EU's external border. To give the EU the means to react we propose that a series of measures should be available at EU level to assist Member States facing difficulty. This could lead to the provision of technical and financial support aimed at relieving the pressure or remedying shortcomings. This also includes practical support from Frontex (through Joint Operations or RABIT), the European Asylum support office (through deployment of Asylum support teams) or Europol.
However, if, in exceptional cases, this is not sufficient a safeguard mechanism could be envisaged to allow for the reintroduction of internal border controls in a truly critical situation, for a strictly limited scope and period of time. On the basis of this mechanism, the European Commission can make a proposal to reintroduce border controls which would be accepted or rejected by a qualified majority of Member States. Such as reintroduction of border controls would be for an initial period of six months, which can then be renewed. Any such last resort measure would be taken at EU level, thereby avoiding unilateral decisions by individual Member States and establishing a collective approach to the protection of our common interest. We avoid situations where Member States read in the newspaper that their neighbour wants to introduce internal border controls.
Such a mechanism would reinforce mutual trust between the Schengen countries since each of them would be certain that even in case of a Member State not fulfilling its duties, the strain on a part of the EU border would not result in a disruption of the whole system.
To conclude, the aim of these proposals is to guarantee a more consistent, more transparent and more efficient border control-free area. If we want a better Schengen, then we need to shift to a truly European system, the only one able to strengthen and safeguard the citizens' rights to free movement within the Schengen area, one of the most precious and cherished achievement of the European Union.
For more information
Press Release IP/11/1036
Frequently Asked Questions: Schengen Proposals MEMO/11/606
Factsheet: What is Schengen MEMO/11/608