One of the underlying principals driving the European integration project for the past several decades – free movement – is under threat, signaling that the fragmentation of the European Union is intensifying. A leaked document outlining proposals to be discussed at the EU’s interior ministers meeting tomorrow indicates that the bloc’s member states are considering allowing one or more members to reintroduce border controls at all or some of their internal borders for a period of two years. Geopolitical Futures predicted that the EU’s open border system, which is defined by the Schengen agreement, would be challenged as a result of the migrant crisis and security concerns in our 2016 forecast.
The Schengen agreement, which currently includes 26 member states, has abolished border controls, forming a vast zone where people and goods can easily move from country to country. Some member states have already introduced temporary border controls over the past months, in response to the ongoing refugee crisis and the Paris terror attacks. Nevertheless, under the terms of the Schengen agreement, these temporary measures can only last up to six months. Therefore, a decision to extend partial suspension of Schengen rules for two years would allow governments to extend or even expand these border controls.
This move may have been designed as a negotiating tool to pressure Greece, which has informally been threatened with suspension from the Schengen zone, to tighten border controls. Nevertheless, the wording of the document signals that border controls would be established among other European countries as well, raising the possibility that at least some major European governments are pushing to have the legal option to keep extended controls with neighboring Schengen countries. Over the past several months, as governments grew more concerned about the volume of refugees arriving in Europe, more countries opted to tighten previously generous refugee acceptance policies. The German government, earlier open to accepting the vast majority of refugees arriving at its doorstep, has taken measures to indirectly try to stem the flow of refugees. These measures include championing a deal with Turkey to reduce the number of people travelling to Europe and working with the Afghan government in an attempt to return Afghan refugees to their home country.
The draft document indicates that European governments may be shifting their strategies, from ad-hoc border controls and attempts to indirectly reduce the flow of refugees to potentially more permanent controls. There are, however, competing visions for how the bloc should address Schengen’s challenges. On Dec. 3, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said that he, along with the leaders of Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, oppose proposals raised by the Netherlands for a “mini-Schengen” constituting several Western European countries. His Slovak counterpart, Robert Fico, had earlier advocated that Greece be suspended from Schengen.
The leaked document only refers to a reintroduction of some internal borders for a period of two years, but if implemented, this move could signal the unravelling of Schengen, and with it one of the core principals of the European integration project. The document may ultimately prove to be Pandora’s box, opening the way for more exemptions and rollbacks of core European policies, as divisions within the bloc lead to increased fragmentation.