Travel restrictions may violate EU agreement

Popular uprisings and violence across the Mideast in recent months has led to massive increases in refugee flows to Europe. To try to get a handle on the problem, a hastily arranged meeting of EU immigration and interior ministers today will discuss an intensely criticized proposal for limitations on one of the most important building blocks of European unity, the Schengen agreement that allows unrestricted travel among member nations.

Reaction to the crisis began escalating with a French decision to tighten controls on the country’s border with Italy, aimed at stopping hundreds of thousands of North African refugees, most fleeing turmoil in Libya, from making their way into France.

Then the government of Denmark announced Wednesday that it had reached agreement with the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party to institute permanent controls on its borders with Sweden and Germany. Lawyers for the EU Commission are looking at how the Danish decision will be implemented and whether it violates Denmark’s commitments as a member of the union

The proposal would allow Denmark to limit Schengen rights in what is called ”exceptional circumstances.” Swedish EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström says the travel restrictions would apply when a member country is unable to maintain adequate controls on its external borders to nations outside the EU and the Schengen region.

“For example, Greece is currently not meeting its obligations to maintain external border security, and if Schengen is to work properly we have to defend these points of entry,” Malmström said. “We’re trying to help Greece build up its asylum system. So there are many other steps we can take first, but the Schengen agreement also says there have to be other possibilities."

The EU Commission’s proposal is criticized by human rights advocates who say that the union is being cowed by populist anti-foreigner parties. But Malmström rejects that view, saying that exceptions to Schengen requirements are specifically intended to head off overreaction to nativist sentiment.