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The rise of national borders and the fall of a symbol

Yves Pascouau and Sylvie Guillaume

Published on 01/03/2016

Several Member States of the European Union (EU) have reintroduced internal border checks since last year due to the “refugee crises” or, more recently, the closing of part of the “Jungle” in Calais. These decisions, while being required to respect EU law, are contributing to the fall of a symbol.

Several Member States of the European Union (EU) have reintroduced internal border checks since last year due to the “refugee crises” or, more recently, the closing of part of the “Jungle” in Calais. These decisions, while being required to respect EU law, are contributing to the fall of a symbol.

The “Refugee Crisis”

With the arrival of a significant number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, some States have reinstated temporary internal border checks in the Schengen area for public policy reasons. These decisions have been validated by the European Commission, which stated in December 2015: “The uncontrolled influx of high numbers of undocumented or inadequately documented persons, not registered upon their first entry to the EU, may constitute a serious threat to public policy and internal security”.

This phenomenon has seen the implementation of border checks along a road going from Slovenia to Sweden and passing through Austria, Germany and Denmark - in other words, the route taken by those who leave Greece to seek international protection, primarily in Germany and Sweden.

Closure of the Calais « Jungle »

On 22 February 2016, Belgium decided to apply borders checks at its border with France, but for different reasons. Following the closure of parts of the Calais “jungle”, Belgian authorities fear an influx of migrants and consequently a threat to public policy.

The Belgian Minister of Interior has indicated to the press: “We want to avoid at all costs ‘Calais-style’ camps in Belgium. It is an issue of public policy”. However, he added that the reintroduction of border checks aims to avoid camps on the Belgian coast and in the neighbourhood of Zeebrugge harbour given the economic impact this would have as “the tourist season is to start soon” (Source Le Monde) .

The Belgian decision is therefore grounded on two concerns, one being security and the other being economic. Yet according to current EU rules, economic reasons cannot justify the reintroduction of internal border checks. The justification of border controls must be assessed against the background of the threat to public policy.

The duty to make this assessment pertains to the European Commission, which must examine whether the potential arrival of 1000 to 3000 migrants from the Calais “jungle” (provided that all of them decide to enter Belgium) constitutes a serious threat to public policy. While the number of arrivals does not in itself suffice to measure this threat, these figures will nevertheless be taken into consideration. It will be all the more when compared to the one million people who transited in 2015 from Greece through the Western Balkans. In addition, the Commission will have to assess the necessity and proportionality of the border checks, i.e. which specific part of the border is concerned and for how long will the controls be maintained after the Calais “jungle” is partly closed. This evaluation is expected to be tense, given the high political stakes involved.

The Fall of a Symbol

These incidents indicate that a symbol is falling. This symbol was strongly supported by the Parliament, which succeeded in including the following point in the Preamble to a text modifying EU law: “Migration and the crossing of external borders by a large number of third-country nationals should not, per se, be considered to be a threat to public policy or internal security”.

“Per se” means that other elements should be taken into consideration to assess the threat to public policy. However, decisions taken in the current “refugee crisis” and, even more the recent Belgian decision, show that the per se threat is deemed to stem precisely from the arrival of a significant number of refugees and migrants on the EU territory and the potential displacement of several thousand people from one country to another.

National decisions are therefore implementing exactly that which the European Parliament sought to avoid. By considering the migratory phenomenon as a per se as threat, such decisions are, by extension, assimilating a migrant, the Other, to a threat. Yet, beyond figures, beyond pictures, beyond fears, it is a human being who appears and who is, to quote François Crépeau, someone who undertook “a dignity seeking journey”.

EU Member States must overcome the challenge of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis hitting its immediate neighbourhood and which is now starting to take place on its territory". They should act together and rely on the common values, which include respect for human dignity and human rights. States should above all implement decisions already adopted in their symbolic dimension as well as their practical effects. Relocation, and the principle of solidarity involved in such a mechanism, is one such example.

Yves Pascouau Editor of website Director at the European Policy Centre (Bruxelles) Senior Associated Researcher at the Delors Institute (Paris) Sylvie Guillaume Vice-President of the European Parliament Membre of the LIBE Committee (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs)

"The authors would like to thank Eadaoin Ni Chaoim for editing and proofreading this paper"

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