Why Europe should stick with the Schengen pact

Though the EU is calling it a "visa waiver", the new approval that takes effect in 2021 will require citizens of 61 countries, including from the US, to pre-register on its European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)

Published: Sun 17 Mar 2019, 8:02 PM

Last updated: Sun 17 Mar 2019, 10:05 PM

It is the most ambitious and progressive effort in transnational free movement of peoples ever attempted. On a continent brimming with tradition and nationalism, one previously wracked by two world wars, governments in Europe agreed to pull down their border barriers and let everyone pass.
Known as the Schengen Agreement for the town in Luxembourg where the forerunner of today's treaty was signed in 1985, it allows people to pass without checks - with certain exceptions. Now reeling from a migrant surge that began in 2015, several signatory countries have reinstituted border controls of various types. France reinstated border controls on the evening of the deadly November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and further extended them by six months in October 2018, citing a continuing threat. Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have all imposed some form of controls due to the migrant influx.
At stake is what is widely viewed as the crowning achievement of the EU. The Schengen Agreement now includes 22 EU countries plus non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Under Schengen rules, member states may "exceptionally" reinstate controls at borders with fellow members "if there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security." But the clause was not intended for de facto permanence.
At the core of the challenge are altruistic goals in the Schengen Agreement that are not matched by a common security programme. Each state, not the European Union, is responsible for its own defence. Members cooperate through coordinated planning and sharing of intelligence, but the effort had been haphazard and ineffectual. Like the euro, a common currency without EU-wide fiscal management, the Schengen Agreement is an attempt at unified action without unity in enforcement.
The existing security programmes include the Schengen Information System that allows police forces in member states to share data, including in efforts to fight organised crime and terrorism. In serious cases, officers from one Schengen state can pursue suspects in another.
Even as anti-establishment leaders in EU member states now call for more national autonomy in border controls and economic policy, the noble experiment in free movement of peoples has been proven to bring real benefits. Studies show almost 75 per cent of those crossing national borders are EU citizens, many working or doing business in another EU country. Of the remainder crossing borders, about 15 per cent are nationals of other countries who do not require a visa and 10 per cent need a visa. Overall the EU has 19.5 million immigrants, some 4 per cent of the total population.
In another of his speeches calling for a more cohesive and integrated EU, this month French President Emmanuel Macron urged reform of the Schengen Area through greater security cooperation and a common asylum policy to deal with the migrant crisis.
In an opinion piece published across France, he said all Schengen Area member states should accept both stricter controls on outer borders and a common asylum policy. A number of eastern European EU members, notably Poland and Hungary, have rejected previous calls to take a share of the migrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa.
To harden the external border, Macron suggested a common border force along with a joint office for dealing with asylum demands. Yet his previous calls for a greater EU have met with lukewarm support.
In addition to implementing border checks, in 2015 Hungary built a wall on its borders with EU member state Croatia and Serbia, which is in negotiations to join the EU. Stating the EU was "too slow to act", Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán led the move to build a 4-metre-high fence to block the flow of migrants that stretches 175 kilometres.
But political careers have been built criticising the EU. Some politicians in Schengen signatory nations advocate greater autonomy, but they are benefiting from what some call the "double discourse" inherent in the EU as their actions vary according to whether they are addressing their European partners or public opinion. Blaming the EU is increasingly a path to power.
In an effort to stop the blame game, EU Council President Jean-Claude Juncker has made proposals to increase transparency in how the council makes decisions and hold EU parliamentary members more accountable for their sometimes double-faced statements.
The debate comes as stricter security measures are planned for most foreigners traveling to Schengen member countries. Though the EU is calling it a "visa waiver", the new approval that takes effect in 2021 will require citizens of 61 countries, including from the US, to pre-register on its European Travel Information and Authorisation System "to avoid any further problems with illegal immigration and terrorism". With three years of validity once approved, the permit costs 7 euros and requires online registration.
Yet whatever its flaws and needed reforms, like the euro the Schengen Agreement is here to stay. It is too deeply embedded and proven too beneficial to be abandoned. Like the humans it embraces, it will carry on in its imperfect way, trying to improve as the great experiment continues.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com

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