Issue Briefs

Can the European Union Save Schengen?

Can the European Union Save Schengen?

Michael Binyon

May 31, 2016

Can the European Union Save Schengen, the Arrangement that Allows Free Movement of People Across most EU Countries?

Is the European Union’s deal with Turkey for visa-free travel in Europe the death blow for Europe’s open borders? Can the Schengen agreement, lifting passport controls at internal frontiers across the continent, survive the agreement to allow almost 80 million Turks to travel to Europe without visas?

The agreement, reached after long hard bargaining with Ankara, is part of the deal under which Turkey will take back migrants crossing into Greece. In return, Turkey will receive six billion euros in EU aid and the abolition of visas for any Turkish citizen travelling to the Schengen zone. The deal has not yet been ratified, as Turkey has not fulfilled all the 72 conditions on democracy, human rights and press freedom that are attached to the Schengen rules. But if it does come into force, many European governments will react with alarm. And those that have already reinstated temporary passport checks on their borders are unlikely to lift them for a long time.

Alarm in Europe

Ever since the influx of migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa reached a tidal wave last summer, the pressures on the Schengen agreement have been growing. As the numbers pouring into Germany rose, neighbouring countries became alarmed. Austria, through which many migrants passed en route to Germany, imposed temporary border restrictions. Hungary also called for a halt to the numbers passing through its territory, saying that so many Muslim migrants would destroy the Christian character of Europe. Denmark closed the free crossing over the bridge into Sweden. Finally Germany, faced with as many as a million arrivals, re-imposed temporary passport controls on several of its frontiers – effectively ending the open door policy of accepting all refugees.

Berlin insists that these border controls will be lifted when the surge in migration stops. But already the political backlash has made this unlikely. The anti-immigration party Alternatives for Germany has made spectacular gains in recent elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has taken a sharp knock. There have been anti-immigration riots and demonstrations in several cities, especially in the former communist east. Immigrants have been attacked in hostels and in the streets. And the mass harassment of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve by men largely from Muslim backgrounds, including some newly arrived immigrants, caused a national outcry.

New border controls

This is not the first time a country has re-imposed temporary border controls. The 1985 Schengen treaty (named after the small Luxembourg town where it was signed) allows this in cases of emergency or national security. But the clamour to do so in France, Italy, Hungary and most of eastern Europe is sparked not only by the refugee crisis: the exploitation by organised crime of the open borders to escape into other countries, safe in the knowledge that there will be no hot pursuit and little sharing of police intelligence to catch them, has caused rising anger and frustration.

And then there is terrorism. The escape of the terrorists back into Belgium after carrying out the massacres in Paris in November, and the discovery that at least one terrorist had passed himself off as a refugee in order to return to Europe from Syria, have highlighted the ease with which terrorists can travel across borders. Interior and transport ministers, even before the Paris events, were calling for tighter controls.

Can Schengen still work?

The arrival of many Turks, travelling visa-free, will deepen these concerns. Free movement around 26 countries for 400 million Europeans is now seriously threatened. Many Europeans look enviously at Britain and Ireland, which were granted opt-outs when the treaty was signed, and still retain full border inspections – with some notable success in stopping terrorists and catching illegal immigrants. No such option is open to anyone else. The 1997 Amsterdam treaty insists that any new EU applicant had to remove internal frontiers. Three non-EU countries, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, have already joined in. Three new EU members, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, will be forced to do so soon.

European idealists and those desperate to keep frontiers passport-free argue that new border checks would not solve any problems. They say the challenges are mostly from outside Europe, and refugees will still keep coming and human traffickers will still evade border police. Terrorism knows no frontiers. And organised crime has roots far beyond Europe. They argue that political crises in the Middle East – war, extremism and religious persecution – must still be resolved, and border controls treat the symptoms rather than the causes.

Secure the EU external frontier

There are two huge problems challenging these arguments. First, Schengen will work only if Europe’s common external frontier is massively strengthened. But where is this frontier? Often in countries least able to cope, running between Greece and Turkey, Malta and Libya, Hungary and Serbia, Sicily and Tunisia. Only a paltry sum has been given to Frontex, the EU border force, to boost patrols, stop drug smugglers and check migrants. And in the case of Greece, there are still arguments about whether border police from other countries should have the authority to do what the Greek border guards should be doing. Indeed, there are serious suggestions that Greece should be expelled from the Schengen zone.

Secondly, the intelligence formerly gathered at frontier posts is never now properly passed on. This became all too obvious after the Paris attacks. Countries have no way of tracking who is entering or leaving unless police data is routinely made available.

Many Europeans do not like free movement of people

The real weakness of Schengen, however, is that it runs counter to the growing mood in Europe. This is more nationalist, more insular, suspicious of Brussels, sceptical of pan-European solutions, resentful of paying out for poorer neighbours, determined to reassert more local control and angry at the remoteness of decision-making. It is not a pretty or an idealistic mood. It has been fanned by the repeated crises over the euro, a growing north-south divide, austerity, slow economic growth and Europe’s failure to find common solutions to the tragedies of migration and asylum.

Back to national borders?

A blanket re-imposition of border posts would be hugely expensive, however. It would cause massive delays and anger tourists and businessmen alike. Most EU members want to save Schengen, but it is not an easy task. A long-term solution will require common rules and institutions governing the area’s migration and security policies; but these will take years to negotiate. The first key issue is to get migrant processing centres in Italy and Greece – the so-called “hotspots” – working properly, by providing them with the necessary infrastructure and resources. Resettlement centres must also be set up, not only in Turkey, but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, from where most of the refugees now come. These should be bigger and better organised points of first arrival for asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries. Here, EU authorities could select those who have a legitimate basis to apply for refugee status in Europe. And those that fail to win asylum must be sent home quickly.

Schengen should be modified in order to save it

The failure of Schengen would be bad for Europe’s economy. Free movement across borders stimulates labour mobility and trade between its member countries. The end of Schengen would be a major blow to the prestige and credibility of the European Union, as it is one of the few tangible benefits that every EU citizen can point to. But time is running out to save the agreement. The prospect of many Turks now also circulating freely within the zone has hardened the determination of many voters to make temporary border controls more permanent. Not everyone needs to be stopped. Passport controls could be selective, based on intelligence or random inspections. But unless some arrangement is agreed quickly, one by one the countries of Europe will start to put up the fences. And then the days of Schengen look numbered.

Michael Binyon has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.