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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EXPLAINED: How right-wing is Norway?

Politics in Europe appears to be trending towards the right, with right-wing and far-right parties performing well in recent elections in Sweden and Italy. So, how much of a right-wing presence is there in Norway? 

EXPLAINED: How right-wing is Norway?

Across Europe, recent election results have shown a trend towards the right. In Italy, election winner Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party is set to become the new PM, while in Sweden, the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats will form part of a right-wing government there. 

Norway appears to be one of the exceptions to this recent trend. In last year’s election, the centre-right government was ousted in favour of a minority coalition of the Labour Party and Centre Party, with the new regime relying on budgetary and parliamentary support from the Socialist Left Party. 

So, where does the country lie politically? Professor Knut Heidar, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, said that Norway could be placed moderately to the left of the political spectrum when compared to the rest of northern Europe. 

“(There is a) broad agreement among the parties about redistribution (of wealth) and an active welfare state. Also, the far-right Progress Party argues for broader state welfare provisions for ‘ordinary people. At the same time, (there is) a broad consensus on providing good opportunities for private enterprise, although (there are) disagreements (between the parties) on taxes,” he explained to The Local. He added that Norway’s political leaning as a country was typical of Scandinavia as a whole. 

Historically, the Labour Party has been Norway’s biggest and most popular political party, with the Conservatives, the country’s largest right-wing party, winning the 2nd or 3rd most seats in parliamentary elections. 

However, Norway is not too far removed from eight years of centre-right government, which included the Progress Party (FRP) for over six of those years. 

The presence of the far-right party in governemnt has had the effect of normalising the populist party as one which could be seen as being part of government- not just in opposition, according to Heidar. 

When asked what impact the Progress Party had while in government, Heidar said: “(It was) small in the overall picture, but they won some symbolic victories. More importantly, (they) moved public debate onto issues that previously had been ‘no-go’ areas.” 

Eventually, though, governmental fatigue would set in for both the Progress Party and Conservative Party and their popularity dipped by the time the 2021 election rolled around. The Conservatives and Progress Party ended up being the two biggest losers on election night, losing nine and six seats respectively. 

The Progress Party would leave governemnt more than a year before the election though. It walked out of government over Norway’s decision to allow a woman linked with the Islamic State terror group back into the country on humanitarian grounds.

What draws voters in Norway to the right? 

Heidar explained that voters of the Conservative Party are typically drawn to its policies on tax and competition between the public and private sector for public services such as health, social services and education.

The political scientist explained that voters of the Progress Party are most concerned with immigration, slashing government red tape, and cutting taxes. 

In this regard, Heidar explained, the Progress Party is similar to other right-wing parties in Scandinavia but that it was less extreme than populist parties in Denmark and Sweden. He added that there was one aspect in which the Progress Party outperformed other parties on the far-right. 

“(They are) also much better in building party organisation and educating their politicians, some of which were much more liberal (in a European sense) than populist,” he said. 

What about the long-term?

The shift from a centre-right to a centre-left government is unlikely to represent a shift in the paradigm or indicate a longer-term trend towards the left. 

Instead, it may simply represent a continuation of the politics and policies that have come before, according to Heidar. 

“No”, the professor said when asked if there was any evidence that Norway could shift further to the right or the left in the longer term. He added that due to serious challenges internationally, the country would likely favour stability over sweeping changes. 

READ ALSO: Why isn’t Norway an EU member?