European Union Proposes Overhaul of Border Rules, Extending Time to Process Asylum Claims

The commission that governs the European Union announced Tuesday several changes to current rules governing the process for people and goods passing through the borders between the nations, including an extension to the time countries can take to process asylum applications.

The rule changes would apply to the Schengen area, a group of 26 EU and several non-EU nations that suspended visa requirements to pass between the countries, a decision that has helped the economic health and other business benefits like shipping efficiency among the member nations.

The proposed changes come as concerns rise over the coronavirus restrictions that reinstituted the border checks in some countries, slowing the travel process and disrupting the region's supply chain.

Another factor in the tightening of the security measures is the concern over the situation developing in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko began inviting refugees to the country, many from Iraq, claiming his government would be able to get them into the EU through his nation's borders to neighboring Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Lukashenko's encouragement of the migrants was seen as his way of getting back at the EU for sanctions placed on Belarus following reports of election fraud and violence against peaceful democracy protesters.

The European Commission proposed that countries be able to alter their asylum processes when another country, like Belarus, actively directs migrants toward a specific country or encourages them to migrate.

The changes would allow the number of border crossings for asylum-seekers to drop, and applications could be delayed up to four weeks rather than the current 10 days. Those waiting for their applications to be processed could be placed in temporary shelters at a country's border for up to 16 weeks.

European Union, Belarus, Refugees, Asylum
The EU announced Tuesday new proposals for rule changes to security measures in place at borders within the region, potentially allowing countries to delay asylum applications longer. Above, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with EC Vice-President Margaritis Chinas, right, prior to the meeting of College of Commissioners, in Strasbourg, France, on December 14. Julien Warnand/Associated Press

The Schengen area comprises 26 countries—including non-EU nations Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Almost 1.7 million people live in one Schengen country and work in another, while an estimated 3.5 million people cross an internal border every day.

"The refugee crisis of 2015, the spate of terrorists attacks on European soil and the global COVID-19 pandemic have all put the Schengen area under strain," European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said.

"This is a balanced, necessary step. It's not the end of the story but it's enough to keep Schengen intact," Schinas told reporters in Strasbourg, France, as he unveiled the proposals, which must be endorsed by EU countries and lawmakers to take effect.

The Schengen travel zone system has been on the verge of collapse since 2015, when well over 1 million people entered the EU without authorization, mostly Syrians seeking refuge from war. A series of extremist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany also saw countries tighten their border controls.

Things got even worse in early 2020 when the pandemic hit. At least 17 countries in the Schengen zone reintroduced checks in the panic, causing traffic and supply chain chaos.

Fast-track deportations would be permitted for those not allowed in by asylum.

To stop member countries imposing ad-hoc border checks between each other inside the Schengen travel zone, temporary controls could be reintroduced for health or security threats for six months, which could be renewed for up to two years.

Countries would have to provide an impact assessment justifying the renewal. The commission, which proposes EU laws and supervises the way they are applied, would have to approve any extension beyond 18 months.

Six countries in the zone have kept border checks in place for the last six years renewing them every six months to circumvent rules that they should not be permanent. That includes France, which has continually had border controls for security reasons since the deadly 2015 attacks in Paris.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

European Union, Belarus, Refugees, Asylum
Pedestrians climb stairs in front of EU flags at the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission, on Sept. 29, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. The Commission announced Tuesday new rule changes to security measures for border crossings within the region. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images