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EUROPEAN UNION

US urges EU and UK to ‘divorce amicably’

US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed regret Sunday that Britain has chosen to leave the European Union and vowed Washington will maintain close ties with the bloc.

US urges EU and UK to 'divorce amicably'
Kerry said the ideal of unity must remain paramount as Britain negotiates "Brexit". Photo: AFP

Kerry, who flies to Brussels and London on Monday for crisis talks with EU and British leaders, said the ideal of unity must remain paramount as Britain negotiates “Brexit”.

“An EU united and strong is our preference for a partner to be able to work on the important issues that face us today,” Kerry told reporters during a visit to Rome.

“One country has made a decision, obviously it's a decision that the United States had hoped would go the other way,” he said, alongside Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

“The vote about Brexit and the changes that are now being thought through have to be thought through in the context of the interests and values that bind us together with the EU.”

Gentiloni said Brexit demonstrated the need for the EU to change.

“We are working to relaunch the Union in light of the decision by the British electorate.

“Our historic friendship with Britain and our alliance through NATO are not up for discussion.

“The challenge we have before us is to translate a crisis into an opportunity by turning a difficult moment into the occasion to relaunch the EU.”

Washington was dismayed last week when British voters chose to leave Europe, a decision that triggered global economic uncertainty and fears other EU members will follow suit.

But Kerry said he had no doubt that Europe would pull together and reassure the markets, noting that even without Britain the EU single market counts 455 million consumers.

President Barack Obama had also made clear his concern about the referendum, and now US officials are scrambling to try to stop the political crisis harming Western unity.

Kerry arrived in Rome on Sunday on a planned visit to have lunch with Gentiloni and a working dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But officials on his flight said that on Monday he would fly on to EU headquarters in Brussels to meet EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Mogherini had been expected to meet Kerry in Rome on Sunday, but she was busy dealing with the fallout of the dramatic vote, which stunned European and world leaders.

From Brussels, Kerry will continue to London to see Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and other officials from outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron's government.

Hammond and Kerry are expected to hold a joint news conference before Kerry leaves to return to Washington.

Obama and Kerry have been at pains to insist the vaunted “special relationship” between Washington and London will survive what US officials view as the Brexit debacle.

But Washington foreign policy experts are all but unanimous in assessing that the White House will increasingly turn to core EU allies to defend its interests on the continent.

Obama himself, on a visit to London last month, warned British voters that their nation would go “to the back of the queue” for a US trade deal if they voted “out.”

US officials are also keen to help London's divorce from Brussels go through smoothly without inflicting further damage on skittish world financial markets.

But they, like many EU capitals, are also concerned not to allow Brexit to serve as an inspiration for eurosceptic forces in other members such as Italy or The Netherlands.

The London visit will be the first by a senior US official since Thursday's dramatic referendum, when voters demanded Britain leave the world's richest trading bloc.

Kerry's trip had originally been planned as an opportunity to meet Netanyahu and discuss regional security and the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process.

But US officials played down the chance of any concrete progress, insisting that the pair meet regularly and that no new initiative would be on the table.

For members

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EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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