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Emmanuel Macron doesn’t plan to let the right monopolise anti-immigration sentiment

In calling for stronger external borders around the Schengen Area, the French president is making a political argument.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Emmanuel Macron isn’t yet a candidate for the French presidential election in April. But in an address to European ministers of the interior in the northern city of Tourcoing this week, he set out his ambition to reform the Schengen borderless area, and in so doing prevent rivals to his right monopolising the contentious issue of immigration.

The Schengen Area, which came into being in 1995 following the signing of the Schengen Agreement ten years prior, is an association of 26 European states that have abolished all border controls with each other. Macron has made reform a priority for France’s presidency of the EU, which began in January.

The principle of a borderless Europe, Macron argued, had been agreed nearly 40 years ago in a different political context. Terrorism, the 2015 migration crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, all had challenged the continued existence of the Schengen Area. “We must regain control of our borders and thus of our destiny,” Macron said.

He proposed the establishment of a Schengen Council modelled on the Eurogroup, which gathers the finance ministers of the countries that have adopted the single currency. The council would, Macron argued, relieve the pressure on individual member states to deal with crises that have the potential to affect the entire Schengen Area. In principle, it would also mean less frequent re-establishment of temporary border controls than in recent years, which has led to tensions between member states. The council could be in place as soon as next month because its formation does not require a European treaty, Macron said.

Structural weaknesses in the Schengen Area have been particularly evident in the past few years. Member states at its external borders have been largely responsible for managing irregular arrivals of migrants. During the 2015-2016 migration crisis, countries such as Greece found themselves overwhelmed by the administrative and logistical demands of registering and hosting thousands of migrants; last year Poland and the Baltic countries found themselves at the sharp end, confronted with the use of migrants as a weapon by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.

Yet it is uncertain that the creation of a Schengen Council would solve those issues, said Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow on the Europe programme at the Chatham House think tank. “Not a single Schengen member disagrees with the idea that open internal borders require effective management of the external borders,” he said. “What they do disagree on is how to do that, particularly how to do that in a humane way, and whose responsibility that ultimately is and thus who must pay for it.”

Indeed, though Macron’s speech was nominally focused on efforts to reform the governance of the Schengen Area, the real focus was on Europe’s external borders. France advocates what it calls effective border control that doesn’t disregard Europe’s values (implicitly, compassion and tolerance). Yet around ten member states are known to strongly prioritise control over values, according to Le Monde. And it remains far from clear that it is possible to make strong border controls humane. Every system premised on preventing the entry of people deemed undesirable results in the deaths of some of them.

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Last week 12 refugees were found dead, believed to have frozen to death, on the edge of the Schengen zone, just beyond the Greek border with Turkey. Turkey accused Greece of pushing them back — an accusation Athens strongly denies.

It is political suicide to recognise that reality in almost every European country. It may be more so in France, where Macron’s strongest rivals for the presidency, such as Valérie Pécresse and Marine Le Pen, are positioned to his right and are all campaigning on strong anti-immigration platforms. The president’s speech in Tourcoing illustrates that he does not plan to let them control the issue.

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