Virus and migrant worries spur EU to toughen border rules

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Meeting of College of Commissioners in Strasbourg

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with European Way of Life Commissioner Margaritis Chinas, right, prior to the meeting of College of Commissioners, in Strasbourg, France, Tuesday, Dec. 14 2021. The College will discuss on a comprehensive package on energy and climate action and will also adopt a proposal for a revision of the Schengen Borders Code. (Julien Warnand, Pool Photo via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Tuesday launched a major revamp of the rules governing the movement of people and goods into and around Europe as coronavirus restrictions and fears over a “hybrid attack” from Belarus using migrants are placing increasing strains on its passport-free travel area.

The Schengen area comprises 26 countries — including non-EU nations Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The removal of border checks between them has been a boon for business, trade and travel.

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

“The refugee crisis of 2015, the spate of terrorists attacks on European soil and the global COVID-19 pandemic have all put the Schengen area under strain,” European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said.

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

The Schengen travel zone system has been on the verge of collapse since 2015, when well over 1 million people entered the EU without authorization, mostly Syrians seeking refuge from war. A series of extremist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany also saw countries tighten their border controls.

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

More recently, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s government began inviting people to Belarus, many of them Iraqis, promising to help them get into 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 sanctions over reported election fraud and a crackdown on peaceful democratic protesters.

To tighten the EU’s outside borders in emergencies, the bloc’s executive branch, the European Commission, is proposing to temporarily ease asylum norms when an outside country pushes migrants toward Europe or actively encourages them to come, as Belarus is accused of doing.

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

Fast-track deportations would be permitted for those not allowed in.

To stop member countries imposing ad-hoc border checks between each other inside the Schengen travel zone, temporary controls could be reintroduced for health or security threats for six months, which could be renewed for up to two years.

Countries would have to provide an impact assessment justifying the renewal. The commission, which proposes EU laws and supervises the way they are applied, would have to approve any extension beyond 18 months.

Six countries in the zone have kept border checks in place for the last six years renewing them every six months to circumvent rules that they should not be permanent. That includes France, which has continually had border controls for security reasons since the deadly 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

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