EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU leaders on Friday (24 June) agreed to establish a "safeguard mechanism" allowing the re-introduction of internal borders in exceptional circumstances, potentially curbing one of the most integrative aspects of EU membership.
Without undermining this basic principle [of free movement of persons], we felt the need to improve the Schengen rules," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said at a press conference at the end of the summit.
The mechanism would allow "as a very last resort, (...) the exceptional reintroduction of internal border controls in a truly critical situation where a member state is no longer able to comply with its obligations under the Schengen rules as concerns the prevention of illegal immigration of third country nationals, with negative effects on other member states," the final statement said.
The commission is supposed to work out the details of the arrangement by autumn.
The debate was prompted by a row between Rome and Paris earlier this year over Tunisian migrants who had made their way to Europe following the democratic uprisings in north Africa.
According to diplomats present during the negotiations on the final text early Friday morning, the new member states insisted on including the term "third country national" - Brussels jargon for non-EU citizens, so as not to leave any doubt about their own citizens, particularly Roma.
Last year, France got into a month-long row with Romania and Bulgaria over Roma repatriations - which then led to the two countries' accession to the border-free Schengen area being delayed.
In addition to the Roma issue, corruption-wary countries led by the Netherlands insisted that the two countries be kept out of the Schengen area as long as they do not fight graft and organised crime in a more muscular way.
Dutch diplomats asked for the Schengen criteria to be extended so as to cover corruption, by saying that problems will always arise at the borders if there is corruption in a country.
Despite agreeing with this idea in principle, Romania and Bulgaria said they feared this would become an unfair and additional criterion in September or October, when home affairs ministers are set to decide an entry date for the two countries.
In the final text, a stronger evaluation of Schengen criteria is foreseen for all countries in the border-free area, but corruption is not mentioned.
"The future Schengen evaluation system will provide for the strengthening, adaptation and extension of the criteria (...) and should involve experts from the member states, the Commission and competent agencies," the conclusions read.
According to a diplomat from a new member state, the whole debate of linking migration with border controls and Schengen enlargement is simply "wrong" and "a big mess."
The source was also sceptical that the compromise focussing on non-EU citizens really works. If the mechanism would be put in place and internal borders set up, "how would you know if a car driving with 40km an hour has EU or non-EU citizen in it?"
An agreement on an EU asylum system is still far from reach, despite calls from home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and a "passionate plea" from Malta to have more of the thousands of refugees from Libya taken over by other member states.
Leaders also rejected a temporary exemption from the so-called Dublin regulation which obliges member states to send back asylum seekers to the first EU country of entry, as proposed by the commission.
Instead, they urge to "push forward rapidly" with work on so-called smart borders keeping track of all entries and exits of non-EU citizens to prevent visa overstay and allowing registered travellers to go through airport security by simply swiping their passports.
The decision to envisage re-introduction of internal borders in case of migratory pressure comes despite calls from human rights groups and commissioner Malmstrom herself to avoid going down that road.
"Solidarity, tolerance, and mutual respect between countries and people - I am saddened and concerned to see that these values risk losing respect and support around Europe," she said in a press statement ahead of the summit, warning of the risk of far-right parties rising and getting their agenda imposed in several countries.
"In my areas of responsibility - asylum, migration, integration, and border cooperation - I can see that xenophobia is on the rise. Developments this spring illustrate the situation quite clearly," she said.