08 June 2023
A meeting of the Schengen Council, put in place under the French Presidency to improve governance of the Schengen area, is taking place today. A note from the Swedish Presidency of the Council outlines areas requiring “additional focus and impetus” if progress is to be made in the 2023/24 ‘Schengen Cycle’.
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Priorities listed in the note (pdf) include the “prompt development of JHA [justice and home affairs] information systems,” with interoperability described as a “horizontal prerequisite” across different policy fields. There will be stronger monitoring of EU visa-free travel regimes, and the Commission is due present amendments to the visa suspension mechanism. The Swedish Presidency previously called for a simplification of the suspension mechanism in order to limit asylum applications.
Full application of the Schengen acquis in Croatia was decided on 8 December 2022, meaning that checks at internal borders were lifted from the start of 2023 for land and sea borders, and from 26 March 2023 at air borders. In April 2023, the application of the Schengen acquis regarding the involvement of Cyprus in the Schengen Information System (SIS) was agreed, setting dates for connection to the database. In the coming cycle (under the Spanish Council Presidency from July to December this year), full application of the Schengen acquis to Romania and Bulgaria will be discussed as a priority and an urgent matter.
Returns still high on the agenda
An ongoing focus for action is to enact more deportations. Although “numerous steps” were taken over the last few years, the overall EU return rate remains at around 20%. The note focuses on existing “loopholes” that must be “conclusively addressed” to “prevent secondary movements and deter irregular migration” through urgent “operational action”.
The note suggests several initiatives:
Law enforcement cooperation against crime and drug trafficking
Drug trafficking is presented as a major threat to the Schengen area’s internal security, with an estimated €31m annual revenue enabling penetration by criminals into the legal economy and public institutions.
The issue is to be tackled through the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT), for which a Strategy and Action Plan have been drawn up for the 2021-25 period alongside additional policy initiatives envisaged to dismantle criminal networks involved in drug trafficking.
In 2023, a thematic evaluation will identify best practices to combat drug trafficking, and the Commission is invited to feed concrete proposals into the Schengen Council within the 2023/2024 cycle.
Caims of the “wide reach” and “poly-criminality” of groups engaged in drug trafficking are used as a prompt to justify calls for joined-up law enforcement efforts to jointly tackle all “ramifications” (from firearms and human trafficking to corruption, violence and “infiltration of the legal economy”):
“This is why law enforcement should be boosted further in the framework of EMPACT to fight serious and organised crime across the board.”
Enhancing border management: “strengthen and accelerate”
Despite the crimes, controversy and undermining of legal principles and international law that have characterised EU border policy in recent years, the Presidency’s note reiterates the European Council’s February call to “strengthen and accelerate work on migration and border management”.
This should focus on:
Ongoing work is led by a “Schengen Coordinator” equipped with a team. The Schengen Council should rely on the “Schengen Barometer+” to identify and analyse “challenges and trends”, annual State of Schengen reports and Schengen evaluations to “identify systemic problems and trigger operational responses” in crisis or pre-crisis situations, and a Schengen scoreboard to enhance mutual trust and follow-up on actions to deal with shortcomings.
The Swedish Council Presidency says there is an “evident” need to revise the EU’s visa suspension mechanism due to “a near-record number of asylum applications in 2022” from citizens of visa-free countries and an “extremely cumbersome” process for removing countries from the visa-free list.
Thirteen non-EU countries sometimes accept "social media profiles and phone contacts" as evidence of identity for the purpose of deportations, according to an internal Commission assessment of third country cooperation on readmission. The assessment, which is produced annually, is used to determine where and how to apply pressure on third states not deemed to be sufficiently cooperative with deportations from EU member states.
The call comes in a letter signed by the prime ministers of Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Latvia and Slovakia that argues "the current asylum system is broken and primarily benefits the cynical human smugglers who take advantage of the misfortune of women, men and children."
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