By Ben Antenore, European Affairs Editorial Assistant
As the EU has been tested by the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorist attack so has one of its proudest policies – the Schengen Agreement.
The Schengen Agreement, named after the small town in Luxembourg where it was signed, is a treaty, now part of EU law, abolished internal border checks between 22 EU member states and 4 non-EU countries (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein) for the facilitation of open and free movement of people and goods. It affects the more than 400 million European citizens, allowing them to cross state borders by any means of transportation without documentation. All travelers are subject to checks at the external borders of the EU member state they first enter. Designated foreign nationals, not resident in a Schengen country or belonging to a list of visa-exempt countries (the US, Canada, and Japan being some) must acquire the Schengen visa. The Schengen visa is a document that permits designated foreigners to travel in the Schengen zone much like any European would.
When confronted by a surge of refugees greater than anything that could have been predicted, Germany shut down its southern border shared with Austria and reinstituted inspections at its other borders last September. Just this past month, German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt urged Chancellor Merkel to close all of its borders. While nothing has come of the request, Germany is still maintaining formal inspections at its borders until May 13. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, French President Francois Hollande ordered border checks reinstituted at all borders. Any individual who seeks to travel to France - whether by train, car, or via plane – is subject to passport checking and luggage searching. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte drew a comparison to the fall of the Roman Empire, when he recently said, “Big empires go down if the external borders are not well-protected.” The Netherlands has yet to impose checks at its borders. Greece is under particular pressure with Germany and Austria accusing it of failing to control its border and calling for its expulsion from Schengen. Other countries, having been given approval by the European Commission, are giving assistance to non-EU Macedonia in order to turn it into a kind of hard border, ignoring Greece’s status as a signatory to the Schengen Agreement.
On Friday, February 12, an EU official, speaking on the condition of anonymity leaked internal documents to the press. The most important part of this leak is a proposal by foreign ministers from each EU member state to invoke a two-year Schengen suspension if Greece is not able to control its borders by May.
All of this combines to cast a dark shadow over the policy jewel of the European Union.
The Schengen Agreement is the result of a series of agreements and treaties.
In 1984, the governments of West Germany and France, fearing a strike threatened by European transport operators due to the lengthy lines they encountered when they attempted to cross state borders, signed the Saarbrücken Agreement. The two countries agreed to the gradual abolition of checks at their common borders and the free movement of goods and people. At the same time, the member states of the Benelux Economic Union (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) had entered into a similar agreement to ease border control and facilitate economic growth and cooperation. When these five countries met only a year later, in 1985, the Schengen Agreement was born. As part of the deal, each signatory abolished border checks on the boundaries they shared with each other. In a system resembling the modern-day FastPass, any vehicle with a green disk on its windshield could pass through checkpoints without being stopped and checked. For the sake of security, however, border guards remained to visually check vehicles as they crossed.
In 1990, the signatories of Schengen met again and agreed to the Schengen Implementing Convention, which supplemented the Schengen Agreement and prepared for the total abolition of borders checks and full implementation of freedom of movement which happened five years later when all obstacles at the border were removed and replaced with signs in foreign languages welcoming travelers and notifying them that they had entered a different country. Fellow EU-members Italy and Austria followed suit, signing onto the Schengen Agreement in 1997.
The 26-member Schengen zone we know today was incorporated into the European Union framework by means of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999. From then on, new EU members were required to pass the necessary laws to take part in the Schengen Agreement. The Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) joined the EU in 2004 and, following implementation of the necessary conditions for the abolition of internal border barriers, joined the Schengen zone in 2007. Not all EU members are signatories to the Schengen Agreement and not all signatories to the Schengen signatories are members of the EU. Ireland and the United Kingdom have their own unique agreements with the rest of the EU instead of Schengen; Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, despite not belonging to the EU, are part of the Schengen zone. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus are still candidates for Schengen membership even though they have been part of the EU for some time.
The Dublin Regulation, signed by EU member states in 1990, dictates that the country where an asylum seeker arrives is responsible for registering and processing him/her. In the Schengen zone, where traditional internal border barriers no longer exist, refugees attempt to avoid being registered in the countries they first enter and then try to reach a member state more economically favorable. Those interested in suspending the Schengen Agreement and reinstating border control hope that such an action would shut down the flow of refugees.
As the Schengen Agreement has been under siege, its namesake, a small town in Luxembourg, has sensed the change in the political climate and is now promoting some of its other attractions. Rather than visiting Schengen for the museum commemorating the historic treaty, complete with an exhibit showcasing the distinct hats border police wore in each member state, tourists are encouraged to enjoy the local wine country. While the town hasn’t totally spurned the Schengen Agreement, brochures concocted by a creative agency hired by Schengen highlight other features which the mayor hopes will draw people in: “the birthplace of a Europe without borders. Where winemaking culture meets modern lifestyle.”
Those who do visit the Schengen Agreement museum often hail from Eastern Europe, grateful for the economic opportunities offered by an open EU.
Free movement is one of the four founding principles of the EU; It was a dream of European leaders following World War II that the unrestricted movement and mixing of peoples would prevent catastrophic war and ensure a lasting peace. The Breugel thinktank in Brussels reports that, in 2014 alone, 1.7 million people commuted daily to work in another country without the hindrance of document checks. In January, when identity checks were introduced to the Øresund Bridge between Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö, nearly 8,000 commuters encountered 45-minute delays in the course of just one day. In a time when most European countries are just emerging from recession, reintroduction of borders with the suspension of the Schengen Agreement may contribute significantly to economic malaise.
What does a Europe without the Schengen Agreement look like? According to Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos of European Parliament, the death of the Schengen agreement would mean “the beginning of the end of the European project.” In a meeting with European Parliament in January, Avramopoulos warned about the rise of right-wing Eurosceptic populism and urged EU member states to respect new EU rules and work together. The EU reports that Europeans make 1.25 billion journeys within the Schengen zone every year. If the Schengen were to collapse European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, believes it would send signals that the European Project and the euro are reversible. In Brussels on Friday, Juncker said, “Without the freedom of movement of workers, without the freedom of the citizen to travel, the euro makes no sense. What’s the point of having one currency which you can use across the continent if you can’t travel across the continent as we have been able to do up to now?”
Speaking at European Parliament in January, European Council President Donald Tusk warned that the EU has two months to put the refugee crisis under control or else it will face the dissolution of the Schengen Agreement.