Justice and Home Affairs Council
Swiss-Libyan row: Berne defends “use of Schengen”
By Nathalie Vandystadt | Friday 26 February 2010
In a context of highly strained relations between Switzerland and Libya - General Kadhafi himself calling for a “holy war” against the Swiss Confederation for its ban on minarets - the EU has very few options other than to continue to plead for a “political solution” to what has become a European crisis. However, during a meeting of EU internal affairs ministers, on 25 February in Brussels, Switzerland had to defend itself against Italian accusations over the use of the Schengen area, a zone free from external border controls.
After Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Franco Frattini, his colleague at the Interior Ministry, Roberto Maroni, has been attacking Switzerland, a member of the Schengen area since December 2008. Rome accuses Berne of using this area for political reasons, having added Muammar Kadhafi and several other Libyan figures to the blacklist of persons no longer able to obtain Schengen visas. “It is not fair to use an instrument of international cooperation to influence bilateral relations, or else it would be the end of Schengen,” asserted Maroni to the press, before adding, “the Schengen blacklist must be used against persons who pose a risk to security, not as an instrument for putting pressure on another country”. To which Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf retorted: “We are members of the Schengen area and, like any other member, we have the right to apply these provisions”.
Italy is historically linked to Libya. In August 2008, it strengthened its links based on a friendship treaty, which included close cooperation on fighting illegal immigration. Minister Maroni immediately warned the EU against the risk of seeing the Libyan authorities “slacken controls at their external borders against illegal immigration”. This came at a time when the 27 member states were attempting to tie up agreements with Tripoli to combat smugglers, active in Libya. Malta, which was concerned about putting a stop to the arrival of illegal immigrants on its shores, agreed on this point. However, no other EU member state wished to fuel the debate on the use made by Switzerland of provisions of the Schengen Convention. “No comment” to the questions in this direction, stated Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, whose country is presiding over the EU for six months. “Switzerland had the right to do what it did,” commented the new Commissioner for Home Affairs, Sweden’s Cécilia Malmström, the day before.
Upon the call by the Libyan leader for a ‘jihad’ against Switzerland, the spokesperson for the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, considered that “these are unusual comments to make,” which “come at an inappropriate time, just as the European Union is working intensely with Switzerland to reach a diplomatic solution”. Other reactions came from France, which criticised these “unacceptable remarks,” considering that the Swiss-Libyan dispute should be settled through “negotiation”.
From ‘Hannibal case’ to Schengen visas
Over the past ten days, the ‘Hannibal case’ (named after one of Colonel Kadhafi’s sons, who was briefly arrested in Geneva, in July 2008, for the ill-treatment of his domestic staff) has become an issue of European concern, Tripoli having decided to block the access of Europeans from the Schengen area to Libyan visas. This is in retaliation to the decision to ban Libyans from staying in Switzerland, which is affecting a hundred or so people including VIPs (even Kadhafi himself), since two Swiss businessmen were held by Tripoli. Since then, one of them, Rachid Hamdani, has left the country after more than 19 months in the Swiss Embassy in Tripoli. As for Max Göldi, sentenced to four months in prison under Libyan law for illegal residency: he submitted to Libyan demands and gave himself up.