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European Union: Schengen Agreement

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will encourage the European Union to suspend the Schengen arrangements and reinstate border controls between member states.

My Lords, the reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen area is ultimately a decision for the Schengen states themselves. However, given the possible security threats, the Government have a strong interest in ensuring that Schengen states effectively combat illegal transit into and across their borders.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Does my noble friend agree that a Government’s first duty is to protect the security and well-being of their people? Given that the European Union has failed to police both its external and internal borders, is it not the duty of the Prime Minister to regain control of Britain’s borders?

Of course, my noble friend is absolutely right, and we have control of those borders because, in the Maastricht treaty, as he and I know, Sir John Major managed to negotiate an opt-out from the Schengen area. We retain strong control over our borders, which is quite essential. We look at the situation happening in Europe at present and we are not dispassionate, because the issues and security concerns that we have about Europe ultimately come towards us—so we need to work with our EU partners. We believe that the type of discussion that they are now having about strengthening the external border to the EU is absolutely right and timely.

Does the Minister agree that any crowing over Schengen difficulties is misplaced and shooting ourselves in the foot, given the huge benefits to UK citizens and businesses that Schengen confers in the ease of travel and trade? What are the Government doing to help to maintain the integrity and security of Schengen through full participation in the Schengen Information System and helping to reinforce its external borders?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right, and there is absolutely no crowing whatever. What we want is the security of those internal and external borders. We are joining the Schengen Information System II, which is very important for sharing information. We are providing support to FRONTEX and also providing support to the European asylum support officers, who operate in hotspots around Italy, Greece and Bulgaria. So we are not passive or crowing—we are actively working with our EU partners to ensure that this problem is addressed.

My Lords, I apologise for my premature enthusiasm earlier—bad habits brought from down the Corridor. If Schengen were suspended, why would the French feel any obligation to maintain our border in Calais?

That is a good question. I wish the noble Lord had continued a little further in his first intervention and then I might have heard it before. The important point is that the juxtaposed controls which we have with Belgium at Coquelles and also at Calais are essential partnerships. It is very important that they are maintained. We do not believe that Schengen is in danger of suspension at present. There may be members of it, such as Greece, which are causing concern and certain members which are exercising their rights under Article 23 to suspend the operation of those borders for a time. However, it would have implications for us, and that is why we are following it very closely and will offer every support we can to our EU partners.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that fences and border controls provide no solutions? Surely men, women and children already in Europe deserve decent treatment. While camps may sometimes be necessary for purposes of assessment, will the Government ensure that the aim is always settlement or return home so that people do not rot in bad conditions?

That is a very important point. One of the things that we have done in supporting Greece is to provide DfID aid to ensure that the centres where people’s applications are processed have the type of decent humanitarian care which Europe and this country have a proud record in delivering.

My Lords, to get to the crux of the matter, is it not obvious to everyone, including government Ministers, that, given what happened in Paris, the arrests in Belgium, Switzerland and elsewhere and the influx of refugees through the borders of Europe, the ability to move through 26 European countries with no scrutiny at the border is a boon to terrorists? Notwithstanding the fact that we are not in Schengen, the fact that if you come inside the borders of Greece you can travel right across Europe to the coast of Belgium and northern France puts immense pressure on our borders. Should the Government not be doing something to have those borders restored for our own sake, if not for the European Union’s sake?

They need to come forward with some answers. The European Commission has today produced some proposals on strengthening the borders. The noble Lord is right to say that this is not something we can walk away from but is something that impacts on us. It is also the reason why we need to tackle the situation at the border, strengthen our EU borders and, given that we know what the cause of this is, take action in Syria with the international community to ensure that this situation is resolved and the cause of this influx is somehow altered.

My Lords, would my noble friend, whom I greatly respect, like to correct his Answer to my noble friend Lord Forsyth—

My Lords, I thought my noble friend had finished asking his question. I suggest that we allow him to finish his question and then go to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson.

Would my noble friend, whom I greatly respect, like to correct his Answer to my noble friend Lord Forsyth? In answering, he said that we had control of our borders. So far as the European Union is concerned, we do not. Even though we are not in Schengen, we do not have control of our borders.

I was making the point that our borders are controlled in the sense that the ability to travel freely across borders in the European Union by the production of an ID card does not apply to us. In Schengen, we retain our full checks on people who are coming into this country and, since April this year, on people leaving this country as well. I believe that that means we have control of our borders.

My Lords, given that Schengen and the euro have proved such painful failures, what do Her Majesty’s Government see as the point of the European Union itself? Would we miss it if it collapsed and we went back to friendly collaboration and free trade between the democracies of Europe? Has the EU not become just a very expensive emperor without clothes?

The benefits to this country will be determined by the people in a referendum in due course, but in this respect they are self-evident: we cannot deal with the migrant crisis that is coming into our country without working very closely with our EU partners and, given that seven out of 10 of our principal trading partners are within the EU, we need to be able to exchange goods and services in an efficient way. With regard to the type of model that the noble Lord is perhaps advocating, he should perhaps be aware that while we are not in the Schengen area, Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Iceland, in the European Economic Area, are part of Schengen, and therefore there is free movement.