Expanding Schengen zone will make Europe more peaceful

Studies found that lifting controls on just one border is like removing a 1 per cent tax on goods

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 13 Dec 2022, 11:59 PM

In yet another period of conflict and uncertainty in Europe, one innovation that has flourished shows there is still hope for the type of European Union envisioned after WWII – a peaceful continent of friendly, mutually rewarding relationships among nations.

From a modest start with an initiative between Germany and France almost four decades ago, the Schengen Agreement, named for a village in Belgium where the founding treaty was signed, has lifted the barriers on internal borders for most of Europe.

Last week the EU approved Croatia’s accession to the Schengen visa-free zone, bringing to 27 the number of European nations whose citizens benefit from freedom of movement between countries for work and leisure.

The area now includes most EU states as well as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland. First enforced in 1995 among six countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Italy – the zone now has more than 400 million citizens.

It was a good week for Croatia as it defeated favorite Brazil in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar just days after it was unanimously approved to join the area, perhaps setting a warmer tone for the new year ahead.

“The Schengen Area is growing for the first time in more than a decade,” trumpeted the Twitter account of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. “Ministers approved Croatia's membership as of 1 January 2023!”

From that date there will no longer be checks at the 73 border crossings between Croatia and its neighbors in the Schengen zone: Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary. That is a benefit for Croats who travel in Europe occasionally, but it is especially good for those who commute daily for jobs in other countries.

It is also particularly welcome news for the transport and tourism industries in Croatia. Long lines of queuing cars and trucks at border checks have resulted in waiting times that make the transport of goods more expensive.

And soon feasible for even car day-trippers, the scenic Adriatic country is likely to experience a renewed boom in a tourist sector that, like in other nations, was hurt in the pandemic. Before the arrival of Covid-19, there were actually worries that Croatia would be damaged by over-tourism. Dubrovnik was particularly busy following broadcast of the popular Game of Thrones television series, parts of which were filmed in the historic city.

But the path for Croatia’s open borders was not smooth or straight. The government in Zagreb began the application process in 2016 after the country was admitted into the EU in 2013, then fulfilled a daunting list of some 281 conditions. Any existing Schengen zone country can veto new memberships and until the last moment there was concern that Austria or Hungary might block Croatia over migration policy issues.

And showing there is some distance to go for trust in Europe that is exactly what happened to Romania and Bulgaria, whose hopes of joining the Schengen Area were dashed by a veto from Austria.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she was keen to see membership for them as well, a sentiment not shared in Vienna.

“Not only Croatia, but also Romania and also Bulgaria have done a lot so that they can join the Schengen Area," Baerbock told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “The EU Commission confirmed this once again just a few weeks ago.”

“Especially in these times, it is important that Europe moves closer together,” she said. “I appeal in particular to Austria to reconsider its‘no’ to Romania and Bulgaria.”

Austria's Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said ahead of the vote that he “will vote against the Schengen enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria. I think it is wrong that a system that does not work in many places should be enlarged."

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told the press that “when it comes to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria we are not united, and that makes us weak and also makes me sad”.

“To citizens of Bulgaria and Romania I say this: you deserve to be fully part of Schengen," she said in an official statement posted on Twitter. “I will support every step to achieve this in my mandate.”

Romania reacted by summoning Austria’s ambassador over the “unjustified and unfriendly attitude”.

The two nations now on hold will no doubt redouble efforts because the incentives for membership are enormous. As Europe grappled with a severe illegal migrant crisis starting in 2015, serious studies were made on the implications of open borders. Think tanks and governments found the Schengen Agreement has such huge economic impacts that dropping the arrangement would be foolish.

Studies found that lifting controls on just one border is like removing a 1 per cent tax on goods. The full demise of Schengen was estimated to cost about 40 billion euros annually if the drastic measure was adopted.

For now, as Croatia cheers its football team, it is set to enjoy yet more good news, basking in peace and development some 30 years after it was mostly known in the headlines for war and tragedy.

It shows that while the path might be less than perfect, peace and prosperity are possible. That alone offers the promise of a better year ahead.

- Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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