BRUSSELS, (Reuters) - European Union states could see border checks with their neighbours restored in the future if they persistently fail to protect the EU's external frontier, legislative proposals by the EU executive showed on Friday.
The plans unveiled by the European Commission propose new rules on conducting border controls in the EU's passport-free Schengen zone to address mounting concern in parts of Europe over illegal immigration, notably from North Africa
Several EU governments have lobbied to make it easier to curb unrestricted travel in Europe and reinstate internal frontiers abandoned in most of the bloc in the last two decades.
But the Commission's plan is likely to meet heavy resistance from many capitals, given national sovereignty issues, and fuel heated debate over the limits of free movement of people, one of the cornerstones of European integration.
The plan proposes taking away decision-making from national governments and giving more say over travel curbs to the executive and EU states as a group, an idea already rejected by France, Germany and Spain.
The Commission has argued its plan, which would have to be approved by EU states and the European parliament, will protect the right of Europeans to travel freely by preventing governments from making unilateral decisions.
"With these proposals, we are safeguarding the future of Schengen," the EU commissioner in charge of home affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, said in a statement.
"Our proposals will introduce a European decision-making system which will reinforce trust among member states and will make the Schengen area better equipped to cope with future challenges."
Citizens of all of the 27 EU states are generally allowed to travel freely throughout the bloc. Twenty-two EU states and three other countries have gone further, eliminating controls between then entirely under the Schengen agreement, named after a village in Luxembourg where the pact was signed in 1985.
However, France and Denmark sparked controversy this year by setting up border points, although Copenhagen, unlike Paris, said its checks were meant to stop crime, not illegal migration.
QUESTIONING UNHINDERED TRAVEL
Debates across Europe over immigration and border controls intensified this year when popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and a civil war in Libya fanned concerns hundreds of thousands of illegal workers could seek refuge and jobs in Europe.
No more than 30,000 ended up reaching European shores, mostly Italy's, but concerns that borderless travel facilitates illegal immigration remained.
Critics point to Greece in particular, largely because of persistent surveillance problems on its border with Turkey.
The Commission said that under its proposals, EU states could temporarily reintroduce border checks as a last resort, if a country repeatedly failed to improve controls despite EU assistance.
"The new mechanism would play a more decisive role, ensuring that this 'ultimate sanction' will encourage member states to fully comply with their obligation under the Schengen rules," the Commission said.
Other proposals allow a state to reintroduce border controls for several days in unforeseen circumstances, such as terrorist attacks. After that, a government would need approval from the Commission and other governments to continue controls.
Countries that want to tighten border controls ahead of expected events such as the soccer World Cup would have to seek prior permission.
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