Row Row Row your boat (people): what the France-Italy squabble means for the future of Schengen

No real silver lining at Ventimiglia

No real silver lining at Ventimiglia

Here we go again! These days France and Italy are at loggerheads over migrants trying to cross the two countries’ shared borders. Not that long ago (2011) Paris and Rome clashed over the very same issue. Back then it was North African migrants moving north in the wake of the ‘jasmine revolutions’. Today it is Libya’s implosion and the record number of ‘boat people’ who made it through the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. Then, like today, France (temporarily) shut its borders with Italy. With panic engulfing the continent, then, like today, gloomy predictions about the end of the Schengen, the policy regime that guarantees the free movement of people across Europe, started to swirl around. So, are we there now? Does the latest intra-European brouhaha really represent the soon-to-be death of Schengen?

My answer is the same that I gave in response to the 2011 row, namely, NO! Despite these ominous signs (the tone of the discussion, for instance, is getting nastier by the day, with reciprocal accusations of breaching the ‘Schengen spirit’), this crisis might not prove to be as fatal as some doom-sayers suggest. On the contrary, Schengen might actually emerge from the present turmoil stronger than before. Indeed, if we look at the history of the regime (which, by the way, has just turned 30 this week) we can notice other examples of ‘crises’ whose features in terms of cast of characters, content and dynamics bear striking similarities with the present predicament. Then, as today, France (the ‘sceptical yet loyal member’), Italy (the ‘recalcitrant victim’) debated the effectiveness of existing border controls in the face of (perceived and actual) growth in illegal cross border activities, traded reciprocal accusations of either laxness or lack of trust and good faith, re-imposed – or threatened to re-impose – internal border controls, and evoked the possible end of the regime. In the end, however, Schengen not only weathered the gathering storm and survived the threat of a possible demise, but came out even stronger from these challenges. Indeed, the regime, which started as an intergovernmental initiative developed by a group of European governments in the mid 1980s, by the end of the 1990s had doubled in membership and, with its incorporation in the EU’s institutional architecture, became one of the central pillars of the European integration project.

From an institutional perspective, these recurrent crises can therefore be understood as cyclical adjustment mechanisms that have helped the regime withstand new challenges and consolidate its institutional presence in Europe. The current crisis’ patterns and dynamics are consistent with the trajectory that Schengen has followed in the past. It might be overly optimistic, but my guess is that last chapter of the chronicle of a death foretold (Schengen’s)  might have a different ending after all…

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1 Comment

  1. And sure enough, few days later Italy and France make amends over the latest border spat. “It’s like couples who have been together for a long time”, says the Italian prime minister… https://euobserver.com/tickers/129213

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