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EU: Member States Step Up Cooperation On Borders, Immigration

EU member states have in recent weeks stepped up efforts to coordinate cooperation on the bloc's external borders and fight illegal immigration. The EU's current presidency, Italy, has made combating illegal immigration one of its main priorities, and is this autumn pushing for accords which could eventually lead to the creation of EU-wide agencies in charge of border controls, visa and passport policy, and the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

Brussels, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Italy, which holds the current EU Presidency, has launched a drive to radically tighten the bloc's external borders and cut down on illegal immigration.

Immigration is a natural concern for Italy. It has a long and porous sea border and is, together with Spain, the point of entry of choice for most illegal immigrants entering the EU across the Mediterranean.

Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu has in recent weeks held talks with his EU counterparts pushing for accords later this autumn which could eventually lead to the creation of a unified EU border-control agency.

By far the most important talks in this context took place between Pisanu and his German counterpart Otto Schily last weekend. The meeting confirmed that Germany -- which has long been suspicious of EU-wide cooperation on immigration issues -- is now prepared to lend a hand. The two ministers also tentatively agreed on a division of labor in coordinating mutual efforts, with Germany in charge of cooperation on land borders, and Italy taking responsibility for managing airport controls.

Pietro Petrucci, a European Commission spokesman, told RFE/RL yesterday (26 August) that the commission sees Italy's efforts as an element in its own long-term drive to set up a pan-European border-control structure and establish a common policy on immigration. "Part of what has been written is something that [already] happens. The commission has proposed -- and the [EU's] Thessaloniki summit [in June] has approved -- coordination centers which already exist in Germany and Spain for border control. Germany has already been exercising a certain leadership as far as ground frontiers are concerned," Petrucci said.

"Leadership" in this instance means organizing -- and mostly paying for -- joint exercises and actions. Thus, a special coordination center for land borders has already been set up in Berlin. It has been used to run joint exercises in Poland involving officials from Britain and Belgium as well as Germany.

Spain, which together with Greece has been given responsibility for the EU's sea borders, has managed two naval exercises in the Mediterranean. Italy, meanwhile, is in the process of organizing a third joint action.

An EU official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that joint EU action in the sphere of border controls and immigration remains a controversial issue, as member governments are reluctant to give up their sovereign powers. However, the official said, it has been "politically decided" that "more organized, permanent" structures to manage EU-wide cooperation will be set up in the near future. He said a joint Brussels-based border-control "agency" is virtually certain to start work in early 2004.

However, the official stressed, the agency will not amount to an "EU border force" with a single command structure and an EU uniform. Rather, the Brussels-based body would have a coordinating mandate and lend assistance to member states "which need help."

One crucial, and hitherto undecided, factor in all this remains money. Italy, Spain, and Greece all expect financial support from the EU budget to pay for their coordinating efforts and help strengthen national police forces. Germany, the EU's biggest net contributor, has rejected such requests.

Besides monitoring borders, Italy is also in a hurry to set up joint EU-wide rules for managing the expulsion of illegal immigrants. A proposal to that effect dating from early July has drawn withering criticism from human rights activists.

Statewatch, a global watchdog, has particularly objected to suggestions that immigrants could be removed from the EU in unmarked police cars by plainclothes police officials traveling across state borders and authorized to use "legitimate force." Statewatch says such a system is open to abuse.

The European Commission, which ordinarily advocated greater cooperation in all fields relating to immigration, yesterday had no comment. Spokesman Petrucci appeared to distance the commission from the plans. "Well, such a proposal can only be presented to the [Justice and Home Affairs] council and discussed -- if it will be presented -- not even, not necessarily in the informal meeting [of EU interior ministers in mid-September] but at the October [JHA] formal meeting," he said. "So we're not aware of any defined proposal, we've been reading the newspapers, [but] haven't had any direct meeting with the Italian presidency during the month of August."

A third element in Italy's coordination drive to control immigration is the introduction of a uniform Schengen visa. The Schengen accord -- which binds all EU countries with the exception of Britain and Ireland -- abolishes internal borders and passport checks in travel between participating countries.

Italy wants to speed up the creation of an EU-wide Schengen visa-information system, together with the inclusion of "biometric" data such as fingerprints or iris recognition in visa documents.

All of these plans will be discussed by EU interior ministers at their next meeting in Italy on 12-13 September.