French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi want to reform the Schengen zone by allowing the temporary re-introduction of border controls to enable European countries to deal with "exceptional circumstances." The two leaders claim that the Arab revolutions and increased influx of illegal migrants from the region, in particular from Tunisia, warrant such measures. Rome is particularly worried that the flow of migrants from the region will only increase following the "humanitarian toppling" of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. About 28,000 illegal migrants have already arrived in Europe, and that number will soon rise to 50,000, according to the Italian government.
The Tunisian exodus is part of a bigger problem
In reality, these numbers are not all that large, especially compared with the stream of migrants arriving in Europe, not from the south across the sea, but from the east through Turkey into Greece and further on to other European countries. In fact, it is the Balkans that have been the biggest headache for the EU immigration authorities, as at one point over 60,000-80,000 migrants were crossing into Europe through the region. When it comes to Europe's immigration woes, this latest Tunisian exodus is just the most visible tip of the iceberg.
Sarkozy and Berlusconi have agreed the details of their plan and finalized their reform proposals at the Franco-Italian summit in Rome in late April. In a nutshell, the two countries want the EU to create a mechanism that would allow borders to be temporarily closed, to stem the flood of "clandestini" (illegal immigrants) and to establish a special relief fund for countries suffering from the "Egyptian problem." This fund would primarily render assistance to southern European countries, above all Italy.
It should be noted that neither Paris nor Rome can push through the Schengen reform unilaterally, or even pooling their efforts. Changing it would require a consensus of all EU member-states. The Franco-Italian proposal will be submitted for consideration at an EU Interior Ministers' special meeting on May 12.
Schengen: A vital mechanism
The Schengen visa-free zone is hardly facing any threat of collapse. It currently includes 25 out of the 27 EU states plus Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland (the UK and Ireland are not part of the zone, although they share information, passport data, border contacts, intelligence, etc. with member states). Of the EU's 500 million strong population, about 400 million reside in Schengen member states.
Schengen is too important a European institution to be discarded merely because of some kind of revolutions taking place somewhere on its periphery. Bringing about a certain "tightening" is a different matter.
In addition, a huge amount of money has been invested into Schengen. Four billion euros went on arranging common European borders alone. This is not simply throwing the doors to Europe open wide. It is an expansive control and monitoring mechanism, upgraded border control posts at all entry points to Europe throughout the member states. It also includes an invaluable information-sharing network, databases, including those of the immigration, police, and intelligence agencies. It also involves education programs for border guards and immigration officials, as well as a flexible mechanism for tourism development, free labor movement and much else besides.
Giving up Schengen would be a big blow to Europe's unity. This agreement and the euro are crucial symbols of the continent's broader integration project. Both France and Italy have always been considered the most passionate supporters of European unification.
And yet, Sarkozy and Berlusconi can no longer afford to ignore events unfolding to the south. Neither can leaders throughout the continent. Now, with cracks appearing in the edifice that is Greater Europe, now that there are calls to abandon the euro, now that multiculturalism has been publically, virtually officially, declared "dead," this is an issue that simply cannot be ignored.
This has particular resonance for Sarkozy and Berlusconi. Nicolas Sarkozy and his center-right alliance have been under pressure from the far right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. Sarko's popularity ratings fell dramatically last year, and his only chance of keeping his head above water until the 2012 presidential elections is to yet again head to the Elysee Palace as a man fighting for "France for the French." Abandoning Schengen is one of Le Pen's key demands. As for Berlusconi, he has only survived in parliament thanks to support from the xenophobic Lega Nord party. This party has threatened to withdraw from the coalition and even seek autonomy, if not full independence, for the entire north of Italy unless Rome takes drastic measures to stop illegal immigration.
It would also be a mistake to think of illegal immigration as a "southern problem." Centrist governments and coalitions in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria have all been facing an increasingly restive public, concerned over the influx of immigrants. Even Finland, known for its tolerance, saw the nationalist True Finns party win seats in the parliament at the April elections. With 19% of the seats, it is the third largest group in Suomi parliament now.
Bolstering the Schengen system with additional control over immigration is workable. It would, however, be much more efficient to seek some kind of arrangement with the countries these migrants are leaving. This will require some additional expense, but this is unavoidable.
Visa-free travel with Russia?
Finally, all these developments make the prospects for visa-free travel between Russia and the European Union even more distant. To be fair, its prospects were never that great, but after this "Arab spring" it is even less likely. The reports that Russia and the EU have finally reached agreement on the list of measures that will help establish a visa-free regime between Russia and the EU in just two months' time are far more than just overly optimistic.
There is a great difference between a list of measures and a visa-free regime. The document that the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council is to consider in mid May is purely technical. There will be many more like it in the future. Similarly, it will be a good many years before a visa-free regime is introduced between Russia and the European Union.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.