The economic crisis is the most prominent issue facing the EU these days. But there is also another issue – a silently emerging one – that may have even more serious repercussions for the EU’s future than the economic crisis.If the mishandling of the issue of immigration - both legal and illegal – continues, it may well threaten the existence of the EU as we know it. Recently, the pressure is mounting on a basic pillar of the EU: the Schengen Agreement.
The Schengen Agreement led to the creation of the Schengen Area through the strengthening of external border controls and the abolition of internal controls among Schengen states. The Agreement also set the preconditions for police and judicial cooperation and a common set of rules on visas and asylum. Schengen states may reinstate border controls for reasons of public policy or national security, but only for a short period.
How legal immigration threatens the solidarity among EU states
Citizens of the EU and the Schengen Area may move and settle from one State to another provided that they have the means for supporting themselves. Recent EU enlargements towards Eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007 have resulted in significant movements of labour from the new members to countries of Western Europe (e.g. the UK, Germany, France). These movements have had a considerable impact in the receiving countries’ social services (health service, education, housing) and in the employment opportunities and the wages of parts of the indigenous workforce, especially in those receiving countries who did not impose restrictions in the movement of workforce from the new member-states. Moreover, some moved to the West without being able to support themselves and this resulted in a rise in criminality. This situation led some countries, such as Italy, France and Spain, to take measures to limit the settlement of people from the new enlargement countries or to even deport citizens of such countries on the grounds of public order (e.g. France’s deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma). It is obvious that, even in cases of legal movement of EU citizens, each member-state’s national interest takes precedence over a -still vague- EU solidarity.
How illegal immigration threatens the solidarity among Schengen states
The issue that fragments the solidarity, and thus the functionality, of the EU even more is that of illegal immigration and of the burden-sharing of immigrants who managed to enter the EU illegally. In April 2011 France decided to close its borders with Italy so as to stop trains carrying African immigrants who had entered Italy illegally and the Italian government had provided with temporary residence permits in order to help them leave the country. Italy, acting on its national interest, tried to export its problem of increased inflow of illegal immigrants by granting temporary residence permits to more than 20,000 North African illegal immigrants, while France, acting on its own national interest as well, closed its borders. Italy, then, accused France of violating the Schengen Agreement but the European Commission concluded that France’s decision was legal. The end result is that both Italy and France have called for the Schengen rules to be modified in order for them to restore some border controls. The latest challenge to the Schengen Agreement has come from Denmark, which recently reinstated control checks on its borders with Sweden and Germany in order to fight crime and illegal immigration.
It is obvious that, in order to tackle this challenge to its solidarity, the EU will have to take the issue of immigration - and especially that of illegal immigration - very seriously. The EU will have to do much more on the issue than mere words of support and some funds that cover only a fragment of the costs of the border countries which receive the bulk of the inflow of illegal immigrants.
The mishandling of illegal immigration threatens core EU values such as the free movement and settlement of European citizens. What the EU must understand is that it is not one single EU-society but a union of sovereign national societies which have been formed through the ages. These societies carry their own national and cultural traits and have their own interests. A weak notion of European identity, especially so long as the EU remains a federal bureaucratic mechanism, will never take precedence over national identities and interests. And the issue of immigration – especially that of illegal immigration – poses a key challenge to the EU by putting its solidarity under pressure.