Free movement – the right to live, study, work and retire anywhere in the EU – is the most tangible success of European integration. Removing internal border controls through the Schengen Agreement has played a significant role in breaking down barriers, bringing people closer together and boosting the European economy. According to a Eurobarometer survey, the free movement of people, goods and services within the EU is regarded by Europeans as the EU’s most positive achievement after peace creation. These benefits should also not be withheld from Bulgaria and Romania, that should become full Schengen members as soon as possible.
Free movement and the Schengen Agreement are not the causes of the challenges facing Europe. The unravelling of Schengen will neither make Europe stronger nor more able to solve its problems. On the contrary, the re-establishment of national borders would thwart the European idea, take away citizens’ rights, and negatively impact our economic recovery.
The Schengen system can be improved, however, by addressing concerns and gaps in the current system, and eliminating the need to re-establish national borders.
Joint management of Europe’s outer border
Under the current system the Schengen Area is only as strong as its weakest link. Protecting the EU’s borders should be a common exercise, with all Member States sharing the responsibility. To this end, the EU should swiftly adopt and implement the proposal to establish a European Border and Coast Guard by expanding Frontex’ mandate. In parallel to this, a debate should be held about the desirability and possibility of the development of a true European Border and Coast Guard – one that is not dependent on Member States for resources. The European Border and Coast Guard should be accountable to the European Parliament and its mandate should be to protect the collective interests of the EU, while respecting the sovereign rights of the Member State it operates in. In the meantime, all Member States should make efforts to help alleviate the pressure on the main countries of arrival.
Effectively monitor the movement of those who want to cause harm
Open internal borders can potentially pose a security risk if information is not sufficiently shared. Existing tools such as the Schengen Information System should be more intensively used and improved, and this should be an integral part of the plans to restore Schengen, alongside those proposed in the Commission’s Roadmap. Investment in intelligence gathering is needed and Member States must improve the sharing of intelligence and put in place co-operation channels based on mutual trust. One way of achieving that is through the creation of an EU intelligence sharing agency. Furthermore, existing agencies should receive a strong mandate as well as the means and resources to act effectively. However, citizens’ (privacy) rights must be safeguarded in all measures taken.
Balanced approach towards internal border controls
Under the Schengen Borders Code, Member States can temporarily introduce border controls under specific conditions, and, in exceptional circumstances, the European Commission can recommend a coherent approach to border controls. However, the (threat of the) closure of Schengen borders should be more carefully managed given the political consequences this can have. Furthermore, in case of a breach of the Schengen Borders Code, immediate action should be taken on the part of the Commission.
Common European Immigration and Asylum System
A sound Common European Immigration and Asylum System will remove unequal pressure on specific states and offers a structural solution to the fluctuating level of refugee arrivals, thus pre-empting the need to close borders. This includes replacing the Dublin system with a permanent and binding mechanism that will ensure the fair sharing of responsibility in hosting asylum seekers and refugees, as well as offering a structural solution at times of extreme strain. It also includes a concrete and determined outward European response that focusses on resolving the roots of the crisis. Furthermore, it should ensure safe access for asylum seekers through humanitarian visas and other forms of legal migration.
Responsible leaders and citizens’ rights
The preservation of Schengen depends, to a large extent, on the implementation of previously agreed rules and on national leaders acting responsibly and avoiding nationalistic and anti-migration rhetoric and action, rather than on the creation of new measures and roadmaps. National leaders also need to refrain from using the closure of borders for political gain. In all existing and new measures, citizens’ rights and those of refugees and asylum seekers should be fully respected. To help benchmark this, the European Parliament should be involved as much as possible in the development and scrutiny of the above mentioned proposals.
Free movement is the core of the European project. We should protect our borderless Union, allowing European citizens to travel, work, exchange ideas, goods and services freely and in pursuit of both their own prosperity and that of our continent.
Published in June 2016