By Davide Basso and Nikolaus J. Kurmayer
(EurActiv) One of Europe’s flagship projects is faltering. The passport-free Schengen area is under a continued assault from a growing number of countries that maintain or have re-introduced internal border checks, citing migration or terrorism worries.
In 1995, Europe created a borderless area – Schengen. The current European Commission has called it “a crown jewel of European integration” and “the beating heart of Europe”.
Travelling across Europe without border interruptions has become the norm in the last 20 years. But that makes it even more painful to see overzealous national authorities reintroduce border checks, most of which started with the big migration crisis in 2015.
Taking the train from Austria into Germany these days feels like Schengen never existed. Upon crossing the border, the journey stops. All doors but one are closed. Well-equipped policemen stroll onto the train and begin checking identities.
The immediate cost: A delay on every journey, and an economic cost as the transport of goods slows down.
But perhaps even more damaging: Every single border check is another speck besmirching one of the EU’s most tangible flagship projects.
Today, a traveller through Europe could be stopped more than a dozen times, owing to a persistent group of countries that have long refused to uphold the spirit of the Schengen area.
Is Schengen in shambles? Opinions differ.
“Schengen is not in crisis. What we are experiencing is a group of misbehaving member states that simply do not abide by the rule of law,” said Sergio Carrera, senior fellow at the Brussels-based think-tank, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
To date, France has installed border checks at every single one of its borders – in the name of combatting terrorism. Meanwhile, Germany is checking its border with Austria – and is eyeing more checks at its Polish and Czech borders too. Austria is subjecting Slovenian travellers to similar checks.
And then there are the Nordic countries.
Norway, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, conducts checks in port cities where travellers from the European mainland arrive. Sweden checks at all of its borders but has been sparse on details and government officials did not respond to Euractiv’s enquiries.
Commission unfazed as concerns grow
Some observers, however, fear Schengen may be suffering at the hands of its richest members.
“Schengen is at least battered,” said Leon Züllig, a Schengen researcher at JLU-University Gießen.
Sylvie Guillaume, a socialist EU lawmaker from France, who spearheads the effort to reform the regime, confirmed that the nature of Schengen “has been undermined by the reintroduction of controls in recent years”.
The European approach to Schengen is characterised by a certain dichotomy that Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg captured well.
“We, Austrians, are great supporters of Schengen as a state in the middle of Europe and great beneficiaries of it,” he said on Wednesday (27 September).
But “the system is dysfunctional,” he quickly added, saying that one-quarter of Schengen countries had implemented border checks affecting half of the population in the Schengen area.
He recounted how German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had said the German border checks – the well-equipped policemen boarding the train – were “indispensable.”
And thus, he said, Austria was “sadly” forced to have its own checks at the Slovenian and Hungarian borders.
The European Commission, which does not seem overly concerned, looks at a total of five dimensions that make up the compact.
These are the management of external borders, the efficacy of returns of rejected asylum seekers, visa policy, police cooperation, and the functioning of large-scale information mechanisms. All of these sat at above 75% in the EU’s 2023 report on Schengen.
Does that approach make sense? Not for everyone.
“The Commission certifying the Schengen area as being in good condition seems at least doubtful in view of the manifold border controls conducted every day,” explained Erik Marquardt, a Green EU lawmaker from Germany.
Ahead of a meeting of EU interior ministers, political declarations to implement additional border checks within Schengen were springing up like mushrooms.
Seeing the recent images of thousands of predominantly young male migrants arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, Vienna was quick to say it would begin conducting checks at its own border with Italy.
Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), gripped by her ongoing election campaign in the state of Hesse, quickly followed suit by announcing some form of border checks at the Polish and Czech borders.
And that move found little support among Schengen experts. “They cannot do that. It goes against the very idea of a Schengen area, and it goes against the treaties,” said Carrera from CEPS.
Poland wasted no time returning the favour, with the governing PiS party announcing checks on the Polish side of the border with Germany and at the Slovak border.
The Greens’ Marquardt said the new border controls are “nothing more than a populist reaction to an existing problem abroad”, stressing that measures like the well-armed policemen checking IDs on the train into Germany cannot fix it.
“Apart from delays, border controls in Schengen have little tangible impact: turning back any refugees is not possible, the border police can only take up the asylum application,” the Green lawmaker pointed out.
Elisabeth Christen, a senior economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, took a similar view. stressing also the economic impact of border controls.
“For each border crossing in the Schengen area, the bilateral flow of goods is reduced by 2.7%, according to model calculations,” Christen noted.
German business representatives similarly criticised the decision to reintroduce border checks, fearing the economic impact on border areas and the unavoidable disruption to trade.
Are the lights at the Berlaymont on?
Schengen expert Carrera called today’s state of affairs a “rule of law crisis”, while Züllig complained that “the European Commission does next to nothing, although as the guardian of the treaties, it should actually defend the Schengen area”.
Carrera said Brussels should stop relying on “diplomatic closed-door negotiations with the rogue governments because they have proven to be completely ineffective,
Increasingly, people like Züllig – who himself is in the midst of a concerted effort to force a decisive court ruling on border checks by refusing to comply with police orders – are getting support from the EU court in Luxembourg.
In 2022, the EU’s top judges ruled that Austria’s border checks – which persist to this day – were illegal given their sustained nature, well beyond any reasonable precautionary duration.
But the European Commission appears reluctant to engage. “At the moment, it’s just too politically sensitive. And that’s why they are keeping their hands off it,” Züllig added.
Schengen supporters hope that after the European elections due next June, a new European Commission – provided it gets strong backing from Parliament – may just be in a position to tackle the Schengen issue.
In the meantime, the increasing number of countries implementing border checks should be taken “to court immediately and stop politicizing this subject,” Carrera said.
The EU executive says it is working on clarifying the “necessity and proportionality of reintroduced border controls,” Commission spokesperson Anitta Hipper told Euractiv.
“We spare no efforts to bring Member States to common solutions,” they added, pointing towards ongoing “dialogue” with EU countries.