Virus and migrant concerns prompt EU to toughen border rules


BRUSSELS – The European Union on Tuesday launched a major overhaul of the rules governing the movement of people and goods to and around Europe, as coronavirus restrictions and fears of a “hybrid attack” from Belarus using migrants are increasingly straining its passport-less travel area.

The Schengen area includes 26 countries, including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, non-EU countries. The removal of border controls between them has been a boon to business, commerce and travel.

Almost 1.7 million people live in one Schengen country and work in another, while around 3.5 million people cross an internal border every day.

“The 2015 refugee crisis, the wave of terrorist attacks on European soil and the global COVID-19 pandemic have put the Schengen area to the test,” said European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas.

“It’s a balanced and necessary step. This is not the end of the story, but it is enough to keep Schengen intact, ”Schinas told reporters in Strasbourg, France, as he unveiled the proposals, which must be approved by the countries of EU and legislators to enter into force.

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The Schengen travel zone system has been on the verge of collapse since 2015, when more than a million people entered the EU without permission, mostly Syrians seeking refuge from the war. A series of extremist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany have also seen countries tighten their border controls.

Things got even worse in early 2020 when the pandemic struck. At least 17 Schengen zone countries have reintroduced controls in panic, causing traffic and supply chain chaos.

More recently, the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has started inviting people to Belarus, many of them Iraqis, promising to help them enter Europe through the country’s borders with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. It was seen as revenge by the man once dubbed Europe’s last dictator after the EU hit Belarus with electoral fraud sanctions and a crackdown on peaceful Democratic protesters.

To tighten the EU’s external borders in an emergency, the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, proposes to temporarily relax asylum standards when a foreign country pushes migrants to Europe or encourages them actively coming, as Belarus is accused of doing.

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The number of border crossings where people register to claim asylum could be reduced. The registration of requests could be delayed by four weeks, instead of the current 10 days. People could be held in temporary shelters at the border for up to 16 weeks while their applications are processed.

Expedited evictions would be allowed for those who are not allowed to enter.

To prevent member countries from imposing ad hoc border controls between themselves inside the Schengen travel area, temporary controls could be reintroduced for health or safety threats for six months, which could be renewed up to two years.

Countries should provide an impact assessment justifying the renewal. The commission, which proposes EU laws and oversees their implementation, is expected to approve any extensions beyond 18 months.

Six countries in the zone have maintained border controls for the past six years, renewing them every six months to circumvent rules that they should not be permanent. This includes France, which has continuously exercised border controls for security reasons since the deadly 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

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