BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Concerned about security threats and illegal migration, some European governments are considering amending the Schengen border code, which eliminated systematic frontier controls across much of Europe.
A week after passengers subdued a gunman on an Amsterdam-Paris express, interior and transport ministers from nine countries will meet on Saturday in Paris to discuss improving security on cross-border trains. They may also discuss efforts to contain a flood of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
The Belgian government said on Friday it would make several proposals at the Paris talks, including on the border code. A spokesman for Prime Minister Charles Michel declined to detail them but said change could improve security without undermining the principle of passport-free travel.
“We say `yes’ to the free movement of people, `no’ to the free movement of people with Kalashnikovs,” the spokesman said.
However, the European Commission, the EU executive which enforces the Schengen code, insists it sees no need to change the rules, either to improve security or control migration.
“Raising questions over Schengen won’t solve anything,” the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, told Belgian public radio on Thursday. “Schengen doesn’t stop any member state from tightening security checks.”
He was responding to a warning by the mayor of Antwerp that border controls would be “almost inevitable” if migrants and security suspects kept coming into southern Europe and heading north over the Schengen frontiers.
Asked about the Belgian suggestions for amending the rules, a Commission spokeswoman said: “We would prefer to work within the existing framework of the Schengen border code.”
Michel said after the attack on the Amsterdam-Paris express, Europeans should now expect more checks on their documents and baggage.
EU officials say governments are free to check for, say, weapons, and Schengen permits them to check people’s identities, including at their frontiers, if there are specific security threats. Germany, for example, imposed border controls when it hosted the G7 summit in June.
Talk of more sweeping curbs in the Schengen zone - which excludes Britain but includes non-EU members Norway and Switzerland - troubles business leaders, who see the speed and ease of moving people around Europe as a boon for the economy.
Still, a discussion on security and asylum may be useful, because national governments taking unilateral steps could challenge the Schengen zone code, said Elizabeth Collett, director of the Europe office of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“One of the dangers of not at least looking at the tension that exists with the Schengen mechanism right now is that individual countries are starting to reintroduce some form of increased checks at the border,” she said. That could start to erode the system toward a “Schengen-lite”, she said.
If nothing else, Collett argued, the sheer cost of checking passports made a collapse of Schengen hard to imagine. “But you might see selected, targeted checks emerging,” she said. “It is worth having a discussion about it rather than sweeping it under the carpet.”
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr, editing by Larry King