BRUSSELS -- European Union heads of governments have endorsed the idea of reintroducing internal border controls in Europe's passport-free Schengen zone -- but only as a last resort and for a limited amount of time.
The idea was given the nod at a summit in Brussels where EU leaders also agreed Croatia should become the bloc's 28th member state in mid-2013.
The issue of border controls within the Schengen area has been an issue ever since France closed its border to Italy to prevent Tunisian migrants fleeing the upheavals in North Africa from entering earlier this year.
That move also prompted Denmark to introduce controls on its borders to Sweden and Denmark in an attempt to combat organized crime.
In response, the European Commission last month floated the idea of giving a member state the possibility of closing its border to other member states in exceptional circumstances -- as long as such moves had the support of Brussels.
'Improving' Schengen Rules
EU Council President Herman van Rompuy said on June 24 that member states were in favor of such a plan -- but he was quick to underline that all EU capitals still supported the core Schengen principle of free movement.
"All heads of states of government are deeply committed to the free movement of persons," van Rompuy said. "It is a cardinal achievement of European integration and a fundamental right of citizens. Without undermining this basic principle, we felt the need to improve the Schengen rules."
The details of the plan still have to be fleshed out by the European Commission later this year, but van Rompuy said any controls would be limited in scope and duration.
"As a very last resort in the framework of this safeguard mechanism, a clause could be introduced to allow the exceptional reintroduction of border controls in a truly critical situation where a member state in no longer able to comply with its obligation," van Rompuy said.
The EU Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, added that the issue of migration had been a problematic one but was hopeful that the new approach would not disrupt the free movement of people.
"On the issue of migration, let's be frank about it: It is a sensitive question," Barroso said. "It is extremely difficult in the public opinion of some of our some member states and there was a tension in recent in months, a temptation to roll-back the core principle of free movement of persons."
Separately, the EU leaders also agreed to beef up the EU's border agency, Frontex, with more equipment and powers such as employing third-nation border officials. Leaders also decided to implement a Common European Asylum System by next year that would pave the way for uniform reception treatment of refugees and the need to strike new partnership agreements with the countries in North Africa to make it easier for young people in the region to study within the EU.
Croatia also received the backing of EU member states to join the bloc by July 2013. Zagreb is expected to sign the accession treaty this autumn, before all other EU countries ratify the deal. The final accession chapters, including one on judicial reform, are likely to be concluded by the end of this month, but the United Kingdom and The Netherlands secured a deal in which Croatian reforms in this area will be closely monitored in the run-up to its accession.
Barroso said he though the accession of Croatia would create positive momentum for the rest of the countries in the Western Balkans.
"I think all the Western Balkans should see this decision regarding Croatia as a very encouraging signal of the determination of the European Union to go forward with its enlargement prospects of western Balkans," Barroso said.