The beginning of the end of border-free Schengen?

With Austria, Germany and Slovenia reintroducing or rather strengthening border controls amid the refugee and migrant crisis following the suit of other European countries like France, Sweden, Denmark and Norway many of us are now questioning: is this the beginning of the end of border free-Schengen?

Two weeks ago in his speech at the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission expressed his concern by bluntly saying: “Internal borders, Erasmus and the Internet generation, these are things that do not go together. (…) The price of a European Union with internal borders is very high. (…) We must do everything to save the Schengen area, knowing that this requires a well-controlled European policy of lawful migration.”

Why is Schengen so important for Europe? Let’s reflect. The Schengen Agreement was a result of the willingness of European states to move into the creation of a single area where European citizens and third nationals alike would move freely the so called, Schengen Area. On the 14 June 1985 France, Germany and the Benelux countries signed in Schengen, an Agreement of the Gradual Abolition of Checks at their Common Borders. This initial stage was depicted as an important path towards the construction of the common territory of a supranational entity. Italy, Portugal, Spain Greece and Austria later adhered along with Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In 1999 a cooperation agreement was signed by Iceland and Norway and later with Switzerland. The 1985 text was later supplemented with the 1990 Schengen Convention, which proposed the abolitions of internal borders and a common visa policy. The Schengen Convention was the incubator of the European Community because it allowed Member States to achieve the “communitarian” or better said, the European states “community objective” without compromising or transferring their sovereignty to the community institutions. In 1997 the Amsterdam Treaty incorporated the Schengen treaties into European Union law (despite providing opt outs for countries like Ireland and the United Kingdom) meaning that – free movement of persons- became not only one of the primary achievements of the European Union (EU) but also part of the EU’s identity and citizenship. Today, under the Lisbon Treaty, Schengen rules are subject to both parliamentary and judicial scrutiny. As most Schengen rules are now part of the EU acquis, it has no longer been possible for accession countries to ‘opt out’ since the EU enlargement of 1 May 2004.

The unprecedented flux of refugees and migrants into Europe and other on-going challenges such as climate and demographic change has served to underline the inextricable link between external border management and free movement inside those external borders. But more than that, the erosion of the border-free Schengen means millions of financial losses and consequently a rise in unemployment within a continent, which is slowly resurrecting from a financial crisis. As the Dutch take over for the next six months the European Union Presidency, Mark Rutte the Dutch prime minister, has stated that the EU has “six to eight weeks” to save border-free Schengen. The programme of the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union clearly prioritises, among others, the need for a comprehensive approach to migration and international security: “The current priority is to control Europe’s external borders effectively, improve the initial reception of refugees in Europe and in the region, and share the burden fairly.” The programme also outlines that “conflicts and human rights violations are major factors in instability, and are causing long –term challenges in the area of security, the humanitarian situation and socio-economic development” The Dutch also say, they are committed to link “internal and external policies more effectively and use the EU´s broad range of instruments and diplomatic efforts on the part of the High Representative and the Member States.” More importantly, they are “determined to contribute to the speedy elaboration and implementation of the migration package presented by the Commission and the early completion of the strategic review of EU foreign and security policy.”

Whatever actions are taken in the next few months to it is important to highlight that border free Schengen will only survive if it rightly addresses the migration situation. In other words, if the European Union Member and Schengen States are able to manage a security and border- control agenda together with a human rights one. Without the focus on the protection of the human person during all phases of displacement i.e. before, during and after displacement occurs the Schengen-border area is likely to become defunct.

At a time where, according to the Frans Timmermans who currently serves as the First Vice-President of the European Commission, 60% of arrivals in Europe from the Middle East and Africa are economic migrants and not asylum seekers fleeing war, it becomes apparent that the protection of the human person merits other solutions that are currently not catered by Europe’s current migration policies, neither the 1951 Refugee Convention and its additional Protocol or the complementary protection measures within the European states. Besides facilitating national and local development projects or other types of bilateral, regional or international cooperation agreements with developing countries, facilitating well-managed mobility and labour migration or other forms of temporary protection from degraded and impoverish areas with Europe, could potentially represent an effective strategy to avoid displacement and help mitigate the current migration crisis. If anything, the next European Union migration package needs to be “migrant centred”: addressing migrants’ group vulnerabilities, employment aspirations, and family situations, and increase skills and provide equal treatment that respects, protects and fulfils their human rights. Migration can be used as a source of transcultural capital to create and promote mutual business for sending and receiving countries and should always avoid the negative effects of loss of human capital or “brain drain” from developing countries. Only time will tell whether or not European states are up for this challenge. Jean Monnet’s celebrated words in 1978 that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted in those crisis,” continue to be as timely as ever.