By Lukas Ma
Moving freely in Europe, from one country to another, is for many such a natural habit that it comes close to driving around in your neighbourhood. Whether it is a quick weekend break to Barcelona or just skiing in the Alps for a day, no police force will wait at the border to check visas. European integration, in terms of free movement, has become such a fostered concept that many cannot think how their lives would look without it. As a result, approximately 1.7 million people travel across European borders every day to go to work. However, in 2015 these uncomplicated mass movements of people turned into a problem when hundreds of thousands of migrants tried to reach Europe. Once these migrants got access to the Schengen Area, the region in which European countries eliminated border controls, they did not encounter any checks to prevent them from traveling to northern Europe. As more and more people streamed into Europe, the government of Hungary was the first to close its borders again, even going so far as to build a fence along its border to Serbia. Slovenia, Austria, Norway, Denmark and Germany have also adopted Hungary’s reintroduction of border controls. This could pose a serious threat not only to easy traveling, but especially to a core principle of the European Union: free movement of people.
In order to understand the legal framework of free movement, one has to look at its origin. In 1985, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, France and Germany signed the Schengen Agreement, which abolished general border checks between the signatory states. In 1990, Schengen II was signed, creating a single external border, establishing a common immigration and visa policy, and allowing for the free movement of persons, as we know it today. The second agreement also includes the Schengen Information System (SIS), a joint database for police forces of the different countries to use in order to enhance cooperation and coordination, safeguard security, and chase criminals transnationally. In total, the Schengen Area consists of 26 countries, including the four non-EU members: Iceland, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and Norway. Since the Schengen cooperation became EU law under the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, all new member states that join the European Union must agree to the terms of the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, new members of the European Union, such as Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus, have to adopt the Schengen Agreement at a later point in time, once they fulfil the formal requirements. The requirements lie mainly in the ability to secure its external border to non-Schengen countries. The only exempt EU members are the United Kingdom and Ireland, both of which agreed to collaboration with SIS, but opted out of the rest of the agreement, which includes the elimination of borders.
In September 2015, several Schengen countries temporarily abandoned the agreement and decided to re-establish control of their borders, defending their actions by citing the agreement’s clauses for exceptional cases. Their justifications for re-establishing border controls were based on the migration crisis in Europe and the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and the Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris, all of which were made possible by the unchecked border crossings. Unilateral decisions to return to border controls are in accordance with the Schengen rules, which stipulate exceptions for cases of public order or national security, allow for a suspension of the agreement that can last for 10 days, with a possibility to extend the period up to two months. In foreseeable situations, such as a new influx of refugees, an extension of up to six months can be requested, with the ability to renew for a maximum of 30 days. In “exceptional circumstances [that] put the overall functioning of the area without internal border control at risk”, an up to two-year continuation under Article 26 of the Schengen Borders Code can be invoked.
Although the legal exceptions granted by the Schengen Agreement give signatory countries the freedom to react in emergency situations, in the context of the current migration crisis, these exceptions could pose a threat to the agreement itself. As the war in Syria continues, refugees will continue to try to make their way to Europe, placing further political pressure on the liberty of free movement. Greece, the first European country through which the migration flow heads, is logistically incapable of coping with the thousands of migrants coming into the country. Under the Dublin Regulation approved in 2013, every migrant must be registered in the Schengen country that they set foot in first. However in the last year, many immigrants continued to northern Europe without their fingerprints being recorded in the country of first entrance. This violation provoked a lot of criticism from EU member states; individual governments reacted by pulling the emergency brake and closing their internal borders, which slowed down their own migration flows, but also created problems for transit countries that kept their borders open. As a direct result of the closures, thousands of stranded migrants have been forced to find alternative travel routes to the most popular destinations, Germany and Sweden.
These short sighted and uncoordinated solutions to counter the migration crisis have no potential to resolve the issue. Instead, they have delayed the flow of migrants and undermined the Schengen Agreement. If the fence building continues, Schengen will not be possible anymore, as all the member states rely on the countries with external borders to protect the community from illegal immigration. If the trust and willingness to cooperate disappears, then unilateral actions will be introduced, which will undermine the concept of a common immigration policy entirely. The only way to save the free movement of people in Europe is to secure the external borders of the Schengen Area, such as those of Greece. A joint European solution can solve the influx problem of migrants and assure that Schengen can be fully reinstalled.
Otherwise, the consequences of losing the Schengen agreement could be severe, not only for the individual European citizen who would no longer be able to travel without a passport, but also for the European economy and European Integration. The European Single Market is heavily reliant on the Agreement, which makes the fast transportation of goods between Schengen countries possible. On average, in member states, an individual saves 20 minutes of travel time when visiting another country because of the elimination of border controls. A reintroduction of border controls would take Europe back to the 1980s, when the crossings were full of lorries waiting to continue their journey. Since the lorry drivers’ waiting hours are included in their working hours, the transportation costs of perishable goods would rise again, as well as those of all other imported goods from other European countries. In addition to this, the travel time for individuals would rise, leading to negative effects on tourism in Europe. Overall predictions of the potential economic losses, projected by the Institute for Economic Research and the think thank France Stratégie, range from 26billion € to 100billion € per year for the Schengen countries.
Aside from the negative economic impact, the disintegration of Schengen would be an abandonment of European Integration. The free movement of people is one of the core principles the European project stands for, and its loss would be fatal. A surrender of free movement would be a blow for a further way to make European Unification complete. In addition, it would empower the anti-European right wing movements that take the finance crisis, the migration crisis and the terrorist’s attacks as evidence of the Union’s failure and as reason to go back to independent nation-states. It is time for Europeans to recollect the conception of the European Union, to remember that it’s founding ideas and principles were based on more than the convenience of faster travel journeys. At its origin, the EU was established to unify a scattered landscape of countries through an emphasis on a shared identity and sense of trust, something embodied by the Schengen Agreement’s principle of free movement and something which should be protected today.
Image by Jesper2cv