French push to tighten EU borders

France this week jolted Europe into establishing common policies on immigration, refugees and asylum, unveiling a European immigration pact as its first big European Union presidency move and pushing for 27 countries to back it at an EU summit in October.

Meeting in Cannes, EU interior ministers tentatively endorsed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s drive to harmonise immigration policy across the EU after he scrapped or watered down the most contentious elements to make them more palatable to Spain and other countries.

The French proposal denies the EU is seeking a Fortress Europe, arguing that harmonisation of policy is needed to ”master migrant flows, make integration easier and promote development of [migrants’] countries of origin”.

”We are not turning Europe into a bunker, but we are steering migrant flows in the world,” said the German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble.

The French scheme aims to make it easier for the EU to attract highly qualified immigrants to fill labour shortages in Europe, to beef up policing of the EU’s borders, to establish common European refugee and asylum policies by 2010 and to expel illegal immigrants.

But Sarkozy’s own plans for immigration quotas in France were strongly criticised by French government advisers as ”unrealistic and irrelevant”, according to leaks in the French press this week.

Sarkozy has had to strip his European pact of key elements. The French initially called for an ”obligatory integration contract”, defining how immigrants would have to behave across Europe. But Spain balked at the requirement and last week the French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux dropped the demand after touring European capitals on a campaign to have it accepted.

French calls for a ban on the wholesale legalisation of illegal immigrants also ran into opposition. The Spanish and Italian authorities have resorted to blanket amnesties in recent years, enraging other EU members because the hundreds of thousands of people affected were then able to travel elsewhere in the EU.

Last month the EU ended three years of argument over the deportation of illegal immigrants, estimated at eight million in the EU, by finally agreeing to legislation on returning illegal immigrants. Under the law illegals can be detained for 18 months and, once deported, barred from re-entering the EU for five years.

The law has been bitterly attacked outside the EU, particularly in Latin America. The French proposals focus on five areas — regulating legal immigration, returning illegal immigrants, strengthening EU borders, ”partnership” with the countries of origin of the migrants and asylum policy.

On the latter, the French are pushing for the EU’s first ”asylum support office” to be up and running within 18 months. The French pact builds on new EU laws such as the ”return directive”, and other drafts from the European Commission such as the contested ”blue card” scheme, modelled on the United States’s green card and aimed at attracting highly-skilled workers.

So far it has been impossible for member states to agree on blue cards because national labour markets vary and governments are reluctant to sacrifice control over who is admitted to their countries. —

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