Schengen

France's Nicolas Sarkozy has made EU borders an issue in his re-election campaign

The issue of the European Union’s passport-free travel zone has become a political hot potato again, thanks in part to Nicolas Sarkozy, who has warned during his presidential re-election campaign that France would withdraw from the border agreement unless more safeguards are adopted.

With just days before voting in the first round of the French election, Sarkozy’s government is pushing the issue back onto the EU agenda, this time with German assistance.

In a joint letter sent to the Danish presidency, Claude Gueant, the French interior minister, and Hans-Peter Friedrich, his German counterpart, are calling for countries to be granted the right to re-impose border controls unilaterally for 30 days if national authorities believe other countries – particularly on the EU’s southern and eastern frontiers – aren’t securing their borders.

A leaked copy of the letter Brussels Blog got its hands on (in French) can be read here. A look at the proposal (in English) after the jump… 

Flowers are the traditional way to say “I love you”. But in European Union etiquette, they can just as well be the side-product of a political spat.

Romanian authorities this week-end blocked six trucks filled with flowers from the Netherlands, citing health concerns linked to unspecified “dangerous bacteria”.

The blockade came – perhaps coincidentally, but likely not – just one day after the Dutch government said it would veto the enlargement of the passport-free Schengen zone to Romania and Bulgaria.

The Dutch are not the only sceptics when it comes to expanding Europe’s borders to include the eastern duo, a decision that requires unanimity among current Schengen members.

At least a dozen other countries, including France and Germany, lined up against Schengen enlargement last year, worried that though Bulgaria and Romania had met the technical requirements laid out in the accession programme, the endemic corruption in both countries had to be addressed first. 

Herman Van Rompuy, who as president of the European Council, will chair the summit

Although the eyes of Europe are on Athens, the two-day summit of European heads of government that starts today in Brussels may have little to add to the ongoing debate over what to do about Greece’s debt crisis.

That’s because most of the tough decisions left – particularly how to involve private bondholders in shouldering some of the cost of another Greek bail-out – have been put in the hands of finance ministers, who must hash out their differences before an emergency meeting July 3.

Economic issues will hardly be off the agenda, however, especially tonight. In his letter to European leaders, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said tonight’s dinner will be focused on the economy – though largely issues that are not particularly controversial or have been decided by finance ministers. 

People, not companies, are at the heart of the battle over the European Union’s passport-free travel zone. France, Italy and Denmark are trying to crack down on the movement of migrants across their borders. The European Commission is concerned that the so-called Schengen system could be undermined. But business should be worried, too. 

For those looking for a break from Osama bin Laden news, Brussels Blog is keen to tout our scoop today on the forthcoming European Commission proposal on migration, and how it’s expected to suggest allowing countries to re-impose border controls when they’re overwhelmed by illegal immigrants.

Although some diplomats had been concerned about a new round of demagoguery over the issue, the decision by José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, to embrace calls for overhauling Europe’s visa-free Schengen area rules appears designed to turn the debate into a technocratic one over when and where such controls can be reinstituted.

In a letter over the weekend to Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, the French and Italian leaders whose dispute over North African immigrants has put the issue back in the spotlight, Barroso acknowledged the “temporary restoration of borders is a possibility” he was considering, but emphasised the devil is in the details: 

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. 

In today’s paper, fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal has a nice scoop about a letter France and Germany sent to European Union officials announcing their formal objections to including Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area, the visa-free travel zone that most EU members are part of.

Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, has already responded this morning by calling the letter a “discriminatory act against Romania,” and vowing to fight the move.

Because the issue could get even hotter, especially since the incoming Hungarian presidency had made Bulgarian and Romanian Schengen membership such a priority, we thought we should post the letter here, with some annotations of our own.