Checks at the border ‘as a last resort’

Checks at the border ‘as a last resort’

EU leaders debate Schengen controls.

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Government leaders spent just over an hour on Friday morning (24 June) discussing the highly emotive and controversial issue of the European Union’s migration policy. They agreed on the need for the temporary re-introduction of frontier checks in the Schengen  area in response to a surge in migration. But they also made it clear that such measures should be used only in an emergency. 

The leaders also discussed how member states will in future evaluate each others’ performance in implementing the Schengen rules, a move that triggered fears in Romania that this would delay its membership of Schengen even further.

The debate about a safeguard clause for the Schengen area focused on the conditions under which it could be activated rather than on its substance. The leaders reinforced the previously agreed language in their final statement, leaving no doubt that the clause will be used in a “truly critical situation” only, where a member state faces “heavy pressure at the external borders”, and for a “strictly limited scope and period of time”.

The summit statement also spelled out a range of measures that have to be taken before the safeguard mechanism can be invoked, such as inspection visits, technical and financial support, and “assistance, co-ordination and intervention” by Frontex, the EU’s border-management agency. This sets the new mechanism apart from current rules, which allow a member state to re-introduce checks at the internal Schengen border if there is an (unspecified) threat to national security.

The leaders also made it clear that the decision to activate the safeguard clause will be primarily technical, “on the basis of specified objective criteria and a common assessment”.

One diplomat suggested that this would make the mechanism very difficult to invoke. “The mechanism will be created to restore trust in the Schengen area, but my guess is that it will never be used,” the diplomat said. He said that no migration crisis faced by the EU over the past decade would have been serious enough for the safeguard clause to be activated, had it existed then.

Border closure

The diplomat described the debate as “bogus” and said it was prompted by “one member state which did not play by the rules”, a reference to France. France, supported by Italy, had asked for new rules after it temporarily closed its borders to tens of thousands of Tunisian migrants arriving through Italy. Other member states – including Austria, Belgium and Germany – had threatened to follow the French example. In response, Italy made it clear that the temporary documents it provided for some of the Tunisians did not automatically entail a right to move freely within the Schengen zone.

Fact File


Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, demanded at the summit that issues of corruption be included among the criteria used to determine whether a country is ready to join the Schengen area.

The demand heightened fears by Bulgaria and Romania that their bid to join – delayed last December – would be further pushed back. But a diplomat said that the new, strengthened evaluation rules demanded by the leaders would become law well after Bulgaria and Romania had joined. The final summit statement does not explicitly mention corruption.


The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to creating a common asylum system by the end of next year but took a firm stand against any suspension mechanism for the Dublin II regulation. The regulation dictates that asylum claims are examined by the member state through which an asylum-seeker has entered the Union.

The European Commission has proposed a mechanism to suspend that provision because it wants to be able to give a reprieve to member states that are unable to cope with a surge in asylum applications, such as Greece. A recent ruling at the European Court of Human Rights has prompted most member states to suspend deportations to Greece, and the Commission wants such suspensions to apply across the EU.

It now falls to the European Commission to translate the criteria demanded by the leaders, and the procedure for applying them, into draft legislation. The leaders asked the Commission to present a legislative proposal on a Schengen safeguard clause in September, rather than “by the autumn” as in earlier drafts. The member states will seek to retain the last word on activating the safeguard clause.

The leaders’ statement makes reference to Schengen’s “external border” and says that the safeguard clause “will not affect the rights of persons entitled to the freedom of movement under the [EU] treaties”. This language was introduced in response to a demand by several newer member states – including Romania, which has seen thousands of its nationals expelled by France in a sweep of Roma camps last year.

EU leaders agreed preliminary agendas for two upcoming European Councils. Items for the 17-18 October European Council include a discussion on the EU’s strategic partners, G20 summit preparations and the debt crisis. Provisional items for the 9 December European Council include economic governance, negotiations on the multiannual financial framework and energy.

Toby Vogel 

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