On the future of #Schengen

| February 5, 2016 | 0 Comments

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Several options and scenarios are currently being explored by the EU member states in order to (re)-examine the future of Schengen, writes Solon Ardittis.

These include: A status-quo, an option which is still favoured, at least publicly, by large member states such as France, Germany and Italy

A two-year Schengen suspension throughout the current border-free area (after six Schengen member states had already reinstated temporary border checks in 2015 and early 2016)

The exclusion from Schengen of selected member states, most notably Greece.

The establishment, as proposed by the Dutch authorities, of a mini-Schengen bloc consisting of Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and possibly France (a proposal which, to date, has been opposed by Belgium, France and Germany).  To this list one should add Romania’s request to actually join the Schengen area in exchange of more solidarity towards the newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers, and Bulgaria’s and Croatia’s pending Schengen applications.

So, Schengen appears to be key to the future of EU immigration policy and, some would submit, to the future of the Union as a political project overall. Therefore, does any of the above scenarios have the potential to reduce irregular migration and terrorist threats in the foreseeable future? And while the latest biannual report on the functioning of the Schengen area, published in December 2015, has highlighted the staggering increase in the number of irregular border crossings detected in 2015 (1,553,614 compared with 813,044 during the full 2009-2014 period), is the reintroduction of internal borders within the current Schengen area such a potent response to the expanding migrant and terror crises in Europe?

According to those advocating a Schengen suspension, the massive arrivals at the EU’s external borders in 2015 and in the beginning of 2016 have resulted in significant secondary movements within the Schengen area, due largely to the failure of member states of first entry to register the applicants in line with the Dublin norms. The suggestion, therefore, is that the closure of internal borders would at least reduce the levels of such secondary movements in a number of member states in the future.

In addition to such an assumption having never been supported by any convincing evidence, it is also largely discounting the principle of intra-EU solidarity enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

The position of Greece is a case in point. The draft Schengen Evaluation Report that was issued last week concluded that Greece had seriously neglected its obligations by not identifying and registering irregular migrants effectively and by not checking travel documents systematically and against security databases such as SIS, Interpol and national systems. While these conclusions as such cannot be disputed, what most commentators reacting to this report have largely overlooked is the fact that, despite accounting for only 2% of the EU’s population, 3% of the EU’s territory and less than 1.5% of the EU’s GDP, Greece received in 2015 more than 80% of the over one million irregular migrants and asylum seekers who entered the EU by sea and land.

This is in addition to the fact that, as of 18 January 2016, only 82 migrants out of the 66,400 planned had been relocated from Greece under the EU Relocation Plan, and that many of the Frontex staff, boats and fingerprinting machines that had been promised to Greece to better police its borders have yet to arrive.

The case of Greece is largely emblematic of the current dichotomy between the EU’s growing initiatives in favour of a Union’s strategy in the field of immigration and security and the member states’ thriving distrust of the very concept of power and responsibility sharing in this sector.  A case in point is the proposed revision of the Frontex’s mandate, most notably the proposed establishment of a European Border and Coast Guard.

While such initiatives have been long-awaited with a view to re-establishing some coherence in the EU’s policy approach to border management and security, and therefore to strengthening the Schengen area, the adoption of the new Frontex Regulation continues to face resistance from a number of member states that are simply not prepared to endorse such a transfer of sovereignty in such a sensitive area as border controls.

Similarly, the proposed amendment of the Schengen Border Code, which will ensure that travel documents of persons enjoying the right of free movement under Union law are checked systematically for internal security and public policy reasons against relevant databases, is still pending and exerting little pressure on the Schengen opponents’ resolution.

The EU has further been active in addressing the poor level of removals of irregular migrants ordered to leave the EU (the current rate is less than 40% on average), by tabling an EU action plan on return in September 2015 and by setting up a Frontex Return Office that will enable the Agency to scale up its assistance to the member states in this area (albeit with an allocated budget of only €15 million in 2016). Again, the effect of this initiative on the position of the anti-Schengen member states has been largely unobtrusive.

The issue of the financial implications of non-Schengen also appear to have been underestimated or ignored: a report issued by the French Prime Minister’s office earlier this week, estimated that the reintroduction of internal border controls within the EU would cost €110 billion per year.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, if Schengen were to be abolished, would the Schengen Information System (SIS), which plays a vital role as a platform for exchanging information on terrorist and serious crime threats among member states have to follow suit? Such an implication would clearly expose the limitations of any initiative favouring a suspension or abolition of the Schengen system.

There is little doubt that the EU’s response to the migrant crisis to date has been largely piecemeal and reactive, and that a comprehensive and sustainable EU vision on the future of immigration and border management remains to be written. However, as the latest ‘State of Play’ on the European Agenda on Migration, published in January 2016, has re-emphasised, ‘no member state can effectively address migration alone. It is clear that we need a new, more European approach. This requires using all policies and tools at our disposal – combining internal and external policies to best effect.

All actors: member states, EU institutions, international organizations, civil society, local authorities and third countries need to work together to make a common European migration policy a reality’.

Solon Ardittis is director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organisation specialising in migration and asylum policy on behalf of national public authorities and EU institutions. He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Opinion, Schengen, Schengen area