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Home » Border Security, Migration

Are we witnessing the evolution of a Schengen with checks?

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2016 – 13:58

As the EU has allowed five states in Schengen to continue the checks for illegal migrants until February 2017, Jiri Celikovsky, Head of Unit for Coordination of Schengen Cooperation and Border Control, Department for Asylum and Migration Policy, Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic, elucidates the significance of Schengen

The shocking outbreak of migration and the brutal terrorist attacks of 2015 cruelly coincided with the 20th anniversary of successful Schengen cooperation. The members of Schengen now have an opportunity to demonstrate to what extent they are willing to protect and even further develop their area of free movement.

In reaction to the sharp increase in uncontrolled immigration in 2015, terms such as “Schengen crisis” were often used by European politicians and EU sceptics alike. Despite this, the European Union hesitated for months before initiating the first steps towards launching the safeguard mechanism after the Arab Spring which would enable the reintroduction of internal border controls. In the meantime, a massive influx of refugees soon exceeded politically acceptable limits. In this atmosphere, member states began to react on their own: some by applying instruments envisaged by the European legislation and others outside the legal framework.

Thus, instead of implementing a unified European solution, individual countries began to take measures aimed at rerouting or stopping the flow of transiting refugees on their own. Shortly thereafter, the limits of tolerance were met even in traditionally refugee-sympathetic member states. At that moment the core attributes of proper Schengen cooperation were suppressed and Schengen’s eventual decay became imaginable.

In March, the European Commission presented a bold roadmap called Back to Schengen. At this time, it was unclear whether there was a desire among member states to honour the same principles embodied in the convention of 1990. Schengen is thus undergoing a historic test, the results of which will unveil whether the original concept of a borderless area can continue to be a showcase of European integration. It seems that most internal borders will be able to function without free movement. However, in places where the societies and economies can no longer function without a border free regime, a natural process of re-inventing regional “Schengens” might occur.

Schengen rocking

There is no doubt that Schengen has already changed. First, by integrating Schengen rules into the framework of the European Union, it lost an invisible but important aspect – the voluntary participation in Schengen cooperation. This change has enabled EU-sceptics to shift Schengen to a product of “Brussels bureaucracy” and thus blame it for everything instead of effectively solving the migration crisis in the original framework of intergovernmental cooperation. Second, the “big bang” enlargement of 2007 led to the loss of an effective buffer zone of countries with the re-admission. Finally, after a period of enjoying unrestricted travel, Schengen has slowly shifted towards “a la carte” mentality, wherein member states can pick and choose which policies they want to enforce, while the abolishment of border checks is silently sacrificed.

The loss of political support for free movement is understandable, as the unpopular queues that led to the abolishment of checks have not been around for years and the daily benefits of free movement at the borders are taken for granted. On the other hand, it is very easy to convince the public that checks at internal borders are necessary and is the right tool for protection against migration and terrorism.

Contrary to the beliefs of EU sceptics, the Schengen Area has very low crime rates – thanks to its developed police and judiciary cooperation. One of those tools, the Schengen Information System, currently contains over 63 million records that helped find over 150 thousand objects and persons last year. Despite the fact that Schengen is very powerful and successful when it comes to protecting the security of over 400 million Europeans, it is still very difficult to advocate the idea of Schengen.

Back to still waters

Despite the current problems and dire predictions, Schengen will most likely survive the current situation. There is as much of a practical need for it today as there was in 1985 when the Schengen agreement was signed, at least in certain areas of Europe. Moreover, all scenarios that include ending Schengen would be politically hazardous.

The Schengen safeguard mechanism is a wise concept because it doesn’t isolate the country making trouble from the rest of the area of free movement. It enables the reintroduction of border control for a time period of up to two years for recovery of the Schengen Area. In real life, implementing this measure requires the support of all Schengen member states. The EU avoided interpreting the current use of the mechanism as “punishment”. On the contrary, the country which caused the application of this mechanism plays a crucial role in solving the crisis.

Unfortunately, the chosen concept lacked the attributes of a courageous approach with reference to limits set by the legal framework. It is a paradox that the route from the Central Mediterranean remains outside the scope of the safeguard mechanism. Thus Schengen did not send a clear signal that there are no doubts on its determination to enforce its own rules, and this situation causes headaches for policymakers who are responsible for deciding how to fully restore Schengen again without controls.

Schengen cannot solve the migration crisis as the asylum policy lies outside its scope and immigration policy is mainly the domain of national states. Everything indicates that the Migration Agenda of the European Commission combined with the Greek Action Plan is working and that migration is slowly coming under control, however painful and fragile this process may be.

It is desirable that Schengen comes out of the crisis keeping its generous approach to the free movement phenomenon which seems to be a necessary precondition for establishing and maintaining a truly border free area. Otherwise, there is a risk that external border control will gradually spread inside the whole Schengen Area and that random or even systematic checks verifying the legal status of people at internal borders would become standard. Isn’t Schengen with checks at internal borders an oxymoron?