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: the German gas pipeline at centre of Russia dispute

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany, has become a key bargaining chip for the West in its bid to stop Moscow from invading Ukraine.

A sign reading
A sign reading "Nord Stream 2 Committed Reliable Safe" hangs above a painted map at the natural gas receiving station in the Lubmin industrial estate. Photo: dpa | Stefan Sauer

The pipeline, which Germany has defiantly pursued despite criticism from the United States and Eastern Europe, was completed last year but still requires regulatory approval.

Germany has now given a clear warning that it will not allow Nord Stream 2 to begin operating if Russia invades Ukraine, despite a severe energy crisis that has sent gas prices soaring in Europe.

Here is a look at the history of the pipeline, which critics say will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and Ukraine has described as a “geopolitical weapon”.

What is it?

Running from Russia’s Baltic coast to northeastern Germany, the 1,200-kilometre (745-mile) underwater Nord Stream 2 follows the same route as Nord Stream 1, which was completed over a decade ago.

Like its twin, Nord Stream 2 will be able to pipe 55 billion cubic metres of gas per year from Russia to Europe, increasing the continent’s access to relatively cheap natural gas at a time of falling domestic production.

Russian giant Gazprom has a majority stake in the 10-billion-euro ($12 billion) project. Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall, France’s Engie, the Anglo-Dutch firm Shell and Austria’s OMV are also involved.

The pipeline was completed in September 2021 but German authorities in November suspended the approval process, saying it needed to first become compliant with German law.

The operating company behind the project, Swiss-based Nord Stream 2 AG, said this week it had founded a German subsidiary as it presses ahead despite the rising diplomatic tensions.

Why is it controversial?

Nord Stream 2 bypasses Ukraine’s pipeline infrastructure, depriving the country of around a billion euros annually in gas transit fees and, Kyiv fears, removing a key check on potential Russian aggression.

Ukraine, in conflict with Russia since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, also believes Nord Stream 2 will be used by Russia to exert political pressure.

In past disputes with Russia, Ukraine has had its gas supply cut off several times.

The US shares those concerns. As do several European nations, particularly Poland and eastern European countries wary of becoming too reliant on Moscow for energy security.

Analysts meanwhile disagree about Nord Stream’s economic and environmental benefits.

A 2018 report by German think-tank DIW said the project was unnecessary and based on forecasts that “significantly overestimate natural gas demand in Germany and Europe”.

Why was Germany so keen?

Europe’s top economy imports around 40 percent of its gas from Russia and believes the pipeline has a role to play in the transition away from coal and nuclear energy.

Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder serves as chairman of the Nord Stream’s
shareholders committee.

READ MORE: Germany under fire over mixed signals in Ukraine crisis

The previous German government under Angela Merkel deflected calls to abandon the project even as tensions rose with Russia over spying allegations and the poisoning and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Now, with energy prices soaring across Europe — and Russia allegedly restricting existing gas supplies to put pressure on the West — stopping Nord Stream 2 looks like a bigger risk than ever.

What do other countries think?

US President Joe Biden objects to Nord Stream 2, calling it a bad deal for Europe and a security risk.

US sanctions on Russian vessels laying the pipeline had long succeeded in delaying Nord Stream 2, angering Germany.

But Biden, eager to rebuild transatlantic ties after Donald Trump, last year unexpectedly waived sanctions on the Russian-controlled company behind the project.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has long insisted that Nord Stream 2 poses a serious global security threat.

“We view this project exclusively through the prism of security and consider it a dangerous geopolitical weapon of the Kremlin,” he said last year.

What’s the latest?

With tensions with Moscow soaring over Russia’s deployment of troops on the Ukraine border, the new German government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the centre-left Social Democrats, has finally brought a change in Germany’s stance on Nord Stream 2.

Scholz warned on his first day in office that there would be “consequences” for the pipeline if Russia makes a move on Ukraine.

This week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told parliament that her government was “working on a strong package of sanctions” alongside allies that would include Nord Stream 2.

In Washington, a top official also voiced confidence that an invasion would stop Germany from activating the multibillion-dollar project.

“If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” said Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

SEE ALSO: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame