Is Schengen Outdated?

By Greta Gietz Davidson College Class of 2015

The European Union, especially the post-1990 version, was founded on ideals of continental integration, peace, unity and freedom. In a continent that was in a seemingly constant state of war, a battlefield for millennia, such ideals were groundbreaking and incredibly meaningful. Now, a little over thirty years after the Schengen Agreement, an embodiment of these ideals and a centerpiece of the European project, was signed and only twenty years after the open borders between twenty-six European countries were fully implemented, insurmountable pressures face its future. The vast number of migrants crossing into the Schengen zone in the Mediterranean and the concern over terrorism are exposing the flaws and incomplete development of the open borders agreement. This moment of crisis could either erode the European project or significantly improve its structures for a stronger, long-lasting future. It is clear that something needs to change, not just in the name of security and control, but to keep the re-emerging populist parties at bay.

The Schengen zone is the world’s largest passport-free area comprising 400 million people from twenty-two EU and four non-EU countries. While EU citizens do not require a visa to visit or work in EU countries outside of Schengen, such as the UK, Schengen has facilitated the building of a European identity. Not only is Schengen practical, but it embodies 21st century governance in a post-nation state, globalized world by promoting the exchange of people and ideas across cultures and nations. With the open borders came the Euro, further integrating the European market and easing travel across the continent.

Can this almost utopian, deeply symbolic structure survive the migration crisis and, most recently, the growing fear that terrorists are exploiting Europe’s open borders, infiltrating the heart of Europe?

Since the attacks of November 13, France has reinstated border controls and Angela Merkel expressed that the migration crisis is raising “the question of whether or not the Schengen area can be maintained in the long term.” The investigations into the Paris attacks have suggested that at least one of the terrorists entered the Schengen area through Greece, disguised as a Syrian refugee a few months ago. It has also been concluded that the attacks had been planned in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, and that the attackers had moved freely between Belgium and France. Furthermore, as several of the suspects associated with the attacks had been known to French and Belgian intelligence, the investigations have uncovered the lack of cooperation and communication between the French and Belgian and other European authorities, despite sharing an open border.

These failures have exposed the shortcomings of Schengen and a scepticism that has always lurked in the background. There is no centralised effort or standard of policing the external borders and ensuring security within the member states. Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, is based in Warsaw, far away from the migration crisis, and it lacks funds and manpower to be effective. Until now, policing the external borders was largely a national responsibility. The Greek and Italian officials on Mediterranean islands and in coastal regions

carried the burden and were quickly overwhelmed and overrun by the migration influx. It was therefore completely out of the hands of countries like Germany and Sweden, the destinations for many migrants. Despite the Schengen zone practically being one country in terms of borders, there is no centralised intelligence. Many countries see a pan-European intelligence agency as too large a surrender of national sovereignty, but recent events arguably demonstrate the dangers in not joining intelligence forces. Even without Schengen, it will be necessary to invest in collaborative intelligence efforts. Europe is small and cooperation is vital.

Until now European integration has always developed and grown, now, for the first time, the EU might have reached its limits. While the borderless zone eases trade and speeds up deliveries, economic reasons will not be decisive. The free movement of people and goods will hardly be hindered by reinstated passport controls. Returning to traditional borders might satisfy the unease among the public, but it would indubitably be a big symbolic hit to European integration and potentially erode European identity. It will also make collective action on migration and security issues more difficult.

Instead, the EU should take recent events as a reality check. The flaws have become evident and need to be tackled by completing and finessing Schengen’s development: collectively strengthen the external borders by creating a common standard and giving Frontex more funds and manpower, and improving pan-European intelligence and communication. Schengen can only be effectively upheld if all members are committed to the same standards and processes.

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