Suspend Schengen to save it

19.01.16 Publication:

The collapse of the “Schengen” passport-free travel zone would destroy the single market and the euro, according to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Since Austria has now become the latest EU country to reintroduce border controls, that collapse might come sooner than he realises. It would be better, actually, if he were to take the initiative himself: an organised, agreed suspension of Schengen would be far better than the current disorderly, divisive, bitter process. It is time to suspend Schengen in order to save it.

Credibility, as Mr Juncker certainly knows, is vital for all politicians and policy-makers. The flow into and across the European Union last year of more than one million migrants and asylum-seekers, to be met only by indecision, half-measures and often chaos, has already done severe damage to the EU’s credibility. At least another million are likely to arrive this year, whether across the Mediterranean to Italy or by land through Turkey. Public confidence in the whole idea of EU or national borders is in tatters.

That is why to defend Schengen is to defend the indefensible – or, to put it another way, to defend the already defeated. The EU’s response to the migrant crisis, thanks to deep divisions between national governments, has so far been a rather pathetic series of half-agreements which no one seriously expects ever to come into full effect: agreements to relocate refugees according to quotas, agreements to build an EU Border Force, agreements to implement properly the “Dublin Agreement” under which asylum-seekers must be registered in their country of arrival. So to carry on with the idea of movement of people or vehicles free of border checks is to carry on with a fantasy.

What is needed, above all, is for public confidence in the EU to be restored, and for that what is needed is an end to the divisions and mutual accusations between member states. To start that process off, the European Commission, with crucial support from Germany, needs to launch a kind of peace process between the member states, for which the full suspension of Schengen would provide an ideal foundation. We will all do the same thing, such an initiative would say, on agreed terms and with agreed processes: that way we can stop accusing each other.

The French have a phrase for it: “reculer pour mieux sauter”. It would indeed be a shame to have to show passports again when travelling between Italy and France. There would be an economic cost to pay for holding up trucks at borders and requiring more paperwork. But if that could be used as a precursor to a proper Europe-wide agreement to devote far more resources to the task of securing and monitoring the EU’s external borders and to setting up proper, humane, processing centres for asylum-seekers, the cost would be worth it.

Germany, as usual, would need to pay more, and be seen to pay more. It is the generous, humanitarian, open-door policy initiated by Chancellor Angela Merkel that is widely and rightly blamed for the rapid acceleration in inward migration over the past six months. Even refugee experts at the United Nations agree that to provide such an open door is simply to encourage refugees to move, and by doing so to risk their lives.

So President Juncker and Chancellor Merkel need to lead the process together: suspend Schengen and start a grand new fund for dealing with the migrant crisis. The alternative really could be the collapse of the whole European Union.