March 13, 2012, Tuesday

Sarkozy’s at it again

In the run-up to the French presidential elections -- the first round starting on April 22 -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy is going into overdrive with his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Last week he said there were “too many foreigners” in France, while this weekend, speaking at an election rally on the outskirts of Paris to a crowd of some 50,000, he threatened to pull France out of the EU’s borderless Schengen zone unless more action is taken to cut down on the number of illegal immigrants over the next 12 months.

Sarkozy stated there is an “unstoppable flow” of illegal immigrants. According to official figures around 55,000 migrants were arrested in the Schengen zone area last year, a 16.77 percent increase over 2010. Sarkozy has said that some member states are too lax with their borders, which has allowed thousands of illegal immigrants to come to France, creating a big burden on the social welfare system.

The Schengen Agreement allows people to travel without being subject to passport control in 25 countries and has been one of the great achievements of the EU.  However, Sarkozy claims Schengen can no longer respond to the seriousness of the situation. He said it should be revised; that it needs urgent reform, along the lines of what has been implemented for the euro, and that during this time of crisis the EU should be picking and choosing far more carefully those who can enter -- the entry of Romania and Bulgaria was recently blocked by the Netherlands -- demanding more discipline from those already on board and possibly kicking out those that are unable to meet their obligations.

A collapse of Schengen would be a blow to EU prestige almost as great as the downfall of the euro. Therefore, by making such comments Sarkozy is undermining the EU. Furthermore, his remarks are also highly unrealistic. Firstly because to amend Schengen would require agreement by all 27 member states, which would be difficult. Of course Sarkozy could also decide to unilaterally restore internal border controls in France on the grounds that negotiations to re-jig Schengen are not going fast enough. In this case, he would likely be breaching European law, for which France would face penalties.

There is no denying the EU has seen a rise in illegal entries. According to the EU’s Border Management Agency, FRONTEX, the figure rose sharply in 2011, in particular in the first part of the year with an increase of some 50 percent. This was a direct consequence of the turmoil in North Africa. The wave of immigrants who began arriving in Italy and southern Europe following the beginning of the Arab Spring last year put the Schengen zone under unprecedented pressure.  Between June and September some 112,800 people were caught trying to enter the EU illegally. However, there was a significant drop as of October which is put down to the changing situation in Libya and bad weather.

Beyond the impact of the Arab Spring, Greece has come under particular criticism. In October, Greece, which is one of the main crossing points for illegal immigrants, hit an all-time record of 9,600.  In response the Greeks have begun to build a 10-kilometer-long, two-and-a-half-meter-high fence along the Turkish border at a cost of some 5.5 million euro, something cash-strapped Greece can ill-afford. While Greece is due to receive some 90 million euros from the EU this year to help it deal with an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers, the funds cannot be used to finance the new border fence. This was underlined by the European Commission last week, which declared such a wall as pointless. Fences and walls are short-term measures that do not solve migration management issues in a structural way.

I believe the best way to resolve this issue would be to proceed with visa-free talks with Turkey. Turkey remains the only EU candidate country with which the EU has no visa-free regime. Efforts to begin negotiations on this remain blocked by a handful of EU member states, specifically the Netherlands and Austria. Turkey has made the beginning of the talks a condition to signing and implementing a Readmission Agreement with the EU. Having an operational Readmission Agreement would mean that Ankara would be obliged to take back all illegal immigrants entering the Schengen zone from Turkey.

While Sarkozy’s anti-immigration rhetoric is widely seen as an attempt to woo those who may be thinking of voting for the far right, it is unlikely to save Sarkozy, who is trailing Socialist candidate François Hollande. No matter how much Sarkozy plays his anti-immigrant card, promising to reduce numbers or destroy the Schengen zone, it seems unlikely he will win. The only thing he has really achieved is to annoy his EU colleagues and undermine an EU success story, free movement being one of the biggest achievements of Eurointegration.

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