Life after Schengen

01.10.15 Publication:

Throughout Europe’s refugee crisis, which has been building for well over two years, warnings about the threat to the European Union’s precious Schengen Area of passport-free travel have proliferated. Indeed, the warning was heard again recently, as EU ministers thrashed out a late-night agreement on border policing and the relocation of refugees. But, at a time of diminished confidence in the EU, would eliminating border-free travel be such a bad thing?

In short, no. Of course, the idea of abolishing borders within Europe holds great symbolic importance and appeal. But sometimes even sacred cows need to be slaughtered. With the refugee crisis turning Schengen into a threat to the credibility of the EU as a collective entity and of its national governments’ ability to maintain order and the rule of law, that time is now.

When it was first created in 1985, the Schengen Area included just five countries (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany). Membership has since ballooned to include 22 of the EU’s 28 member countries – with four of those left out (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania) due to join in the future – plus four non-EU members (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). All have abolished controls at their shared borders and have adopted a common visa policy for citizens of non-member states.

It is certainly handy to be able to treat a flight from Zurich to Oslo as a domestic journey, with no passport controls to contend with upon departure and arrival. And it is undoubtedly convenient to be able to drive from Berlin to Barcelona without having to wait in line at each border one crosses. Indeed, that convenience is probably why only two EU countries (Ireland and the United Kingdom) have opted out of the Schengen agreement.

But the refugee crisis has exposed the flipside of the Schengen Agreement – namely, the difficulty of monitoring national and EU territory without border controls. And though non-Schengen countries have, in some cases, been able to avoid direct obligations to participate in a common policy – the UK, for example, has remained outside the EU’s scheme for the relocation of refugees – they have not been insulated from the challenges of the migration crisis. They, like the Schengen countries, cannot credibly say how many migrants are in their country, who these people are, or when they arrived.

This loss of control matters, for two main reasons. First, if statistics about migration are open to doubt, even before taking into account illegal immigration, nationalist anti-immigration political parties can more easily exaggerate the figures to stoke public fears. Second, if refugees who have been granted asylum can move easily to any Schengen country they choose, burden-sharing agreements lose their credibility and accepting refugees loses its practical appeal.

A country would not want to cover the up-front costs of settling a particular number of refugees, only to miss out on the eventual economic benefits that those refugees could provide when they join the workforce. To avoid this outcome, it would make sense to implement a transition period – like the seven-year transition periods faced by citizens of new member states – during which successful asylum-seekers are barred from moving to other countries for work. But Schengen makes this very difficult to enforce – a reality that plays further into the hands of the nationalists, who are keen to portray the EU as a burdensome obligation, rather than as a source of solutions or opportunities.

To be sure, the Schengen Agreement and the EU’s principle of free movement of people seem naturally to reinforce each other. But the issues they raise are not the same. It is the free movement of people, not border-free travel, that forms an essential component of the EU. And, under the current circumstances, Schengen is placing that fundamental right and benefit at risk.

Of course, resolving the refugee crisis will take far more than just reintroducing glass booths and uniformed immigration officials at borders. But suspending or abolishing the Schengen Agreement would boost the credibility of governments’ efforts to maintain order at home, and thus make ordinary citizens far more amenable to aiding more refugees.

At the same time, reversing a once-cherished policy would prove that the EU, far from being trapped by some utopian ideology, can adapt to changing circumstances in a thoughtful and pragmatic manner. “Reculer pour mieux sauter” – backing up in order to jump better – is, after all, a time-honored and very European principle.