Sarkozy and Berlusconi reopening migration debate

With France’s presidential election already in high gear, some top EU diplomats Brussels Blog has talked to in recent weeks are concerned that in the months leading to the summer break, the Brussels agenda could become overwhelmed by the politically sensitive issue of migration.

Tuesday’s summit between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is evidence their concerns are well placed.

For those who haven’t read it yet, it’s worth taking a look at the letter Berlusconi and Sarkozy sent to the EU’s two presidents, Commission chief José Manuel Barroso and Council boss Herman Van Rompuy. Pay special attention to the letter’s section III, where the two propose “enhanced security” in Europe’s visa-free Schengen area.

Among the more intriguing ideas in the section is a big step towards creating a pan-European border guard system, a plan they want approved by the next EU summit in June. It may not quite be the European army envisioned by ardent federalists, but a significant step nonetheless.

The proposal focuses on Frontex, which now is largely a coordinating agency between national border control systems. But the Sarkozy-Berlusconi letter suggests turning it into something quite different:

An agreement must be reached by June 2011 on the revision of [Frontex] regulations, going as far as possible to increase its operational capabilities. The agency could also open a dedicated Mediterranean office and develop surveillance and interdiction operations: its budget should be adjusted accordingly…. In addition, Frontex is destined to be the nucleus of a European border guard…. It is time to lay the groundwork for such a European system.

Northern countries haven’t been hugely enthusiastic about such proposals in the past, feeling an empowered Frontex would become an agency they would have to fund but would largely benefit only those facing an influx from Europe’s south, so the Franco-Italian initiative could prove controversial.

Potentially equally controversial is a proposal in the letter to change the way Schengen is governed. The two leaders argue that there must be more stringent rules applied to countries already part of the visa-free area – as well as to those looking to get in, a clear shot at Bulgaria and Romania, both of which thought they’d be on the road towards membership by now.

Dust-ups between Sarkozy and his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu, have become a regular feature of recent EU summits, bad blood that started over Sarkozy’s treatment of Roma in France and got worse when the French government joined with Germany to block Romanian and Bulgarian Schengen membership late last year.

Barroso is due to present his own proposal for revisions of Schengen governance next week. Given the political focus Sarkozy and Berlusconi have put on the issue, it’s something we’ll be keeping a close eye on.