Making sense of Schengen’s contradictions

What a snub! Last June,  the European parliament (EP),

Twisted & thorny

in an unprecedented move, suspended cooperation with the EU’s other main legislative body, the European  Council, following the latter’s decision to exclude the EP from the supervision of the Schengen free travel zone. This is just the last of what is becoming a long series of bumps in an already troubled journey Schengen has faced in the last year. The attempt by member states to effectively ‘renationalize’ the regime has also revamped long standing criticisms levelled against Schengen, such as the fact that it is a top down system lacking democratic control and input, its flexible method has damaged the EU’s institutional coherence, it over-emphasizes security over freedom, it has a negative impact on Europe’s neighbours and non EU citizens, and its expansionary drive can lead to overstretching…  What a damning list! Bad as they might sound, in reality these are the very features that have rendered Schengen so successful in the first place…But they are also what might lead to its demise in the long run… What follows is my attempt to unpack this apparent contradiction.

The fact that Schengen is an elite-driven and undemocratic enterprise has prevented an open discussion about the actual meaning of ‘European border’ from taking place. In a national context, the legitimacy of the state as main provider of security  is based on the protection of citizens qua nationals. With Schengen, it should be based on shared protection, but the current arrangement lacks a genuine sense of solidarity and shared identity of the protected. This shared identity must emerge for the peoples of Europe to fully accept a common external frontier and the abolition of police controls on frontiers between them. Since the regime’s inception, Schengen’s popular support has been mainly passive, and based on practical results of the policies introduced. Its relative shallowness is reflected in the fact that popular opinion has fluctuated depending on the issue at stake and the mood of the moment. This condition seriously weakens Schengen’s legitimacy, and it could hurt the long-term success of the initiative.

If the lack of popular support has prevented Schengen from gaining greater legitimacy, its reliance on flexible methods has created political and legal fragmentation in the policy-making process. The result has been increased complexity and diminished transparency. These issues were a source of concern before Schengen was incorporated in the EU, and they remain so today, given the undiminished appeal of ‘enhanced co-operation’ arrangements in the area of justice, security and freedom.

Even more worrying is the potentially self-destructive dynamic stemming from Schengen’s ‘internal security dilemma’. According to this logic, security is a necessary precondition for the establishment and expansion of freedom in a given community. The quest for security, however, can never be completely fulfilled, since this is an inherently subjective and unstable condition. As a result, security feeds more security, and the process can potentially go on ad infinitum. One of the side effects of this ‘hyper-securitization’ is that the policies it entails become almost exclusively repressive, since they are aimed at sealing off Europe from potential threats. This explains why Schengen has been opposed by civil libertarian groups in current member states and it has created widespread suspicion and resistance among Europe’s neighbours. It also explain why it has been fiercely contested by critically oriented scholars and activists who consider Schengen a vehicle for the imposition of a particular gendered, raced and classed vision of reality.

The prospect of new states – even current EU members states such Romania and Bulgaria –becoming fully integrated into the Schengen space represents another serious challenge to the regime’s future viability. The quest for expansion was part of this project since the very beginnings, and this feature was maintained with its incorporation in the EU. A potential implication of this ‘bigger is better’ logic is that the system may become overstretched and eventually lose momentum and effectiveness (not to mention its function as laboratory for the EU). Arguably, the EU’s main post-enlargement challenges stem from the increased political, structural and implementation capability diversity that the new members will bring. All these differences will remain after enlargement (if it ever occurs), rendering common decision-making in border control matters more problematic.

Steps have indeed been taken, or at least discussion is ongoing, to address some of these shortcomings. So far there have been proposals to make the policy-making process in justice and home affairs more transparent. These discussions have focused on increasing transparency through better information on objectives and progress to parliaments, the media and the citizens, as well as more effective parliamentary control. Ideas to expand and render more meaningful EU citizenship are going in the direction of creating a sense of solidarity and shared identity among Europeans. The European Commission has been the most vocal in ensuring that concerns over security do not overshadow the ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ objectives of the EU, thus guaranteeing a better balance in the delivering of these public goods.

Despite these attempts, addressing Schengen’s shortcomings will be difficult. The main reason is that these elements in the Schengen experiment are, ironically, also some of its major assets. These features were instrumental in allowing the border control policy community to go beyond the nationalist commonsense. In terms of participation and democratic control, opening up the debate over Schengen would have weakened the community’s effort in pursuing it. Flexibility was one of Schengen’s major strengths, since it allowed European policy-makers to avoid getting bogged down in legal and bureaucratic wrangles or the vetoing by individual countries, as often occurred in the EU. The emphasis on security, especially at Europe’s external borders, was aimed at soothing popular anxieties that the lifting of internal frontiers was believed to create. Limiting the rights of neighbours and non-EU citizens has become the price paid in order to expand the rights of EU citizens, and more generally a way to externalize the negative implications of the newly created area of free movement. Finally, the continuing expansion of the regime, now including the new EU members, represents a politically expedient means to solidify the regime and to guarantee its survival.

            The tensions within Schengen have so far been contained, because of the political support it has among most existing members. This support, however, has been seriously tested recently (see, for example, the recent brouhaha over the right of individual member states to re-instate borders in cases of emergency ) and that might create problems in the long term, and even lead to the unthinkable, that is a Europe without Schengen.

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Schengen’s enlargement anxiety

The doom and gloom that currently pervades the Old (moribund?) Continent has rendered its citizens and politicians particularly jittery. It is not surprising, then, that even Schengen, often hailed as one of the most successful stories of European integration, is under strain. This tension has taken different forms. I have already discussed in this blog how of late some Schengen members (e.g. France) have repetedly moaned about the regime’s (alleged) shortcomings and called for its rehaul. This sense of unease has also affected the present debate about Schengen’s expansion. Romania and Bulgaria, who joined the EU in 2007, want to join Europe’s free travel area as well. Despite having met the necessary legal and technical requirements (at least according to the EU experts who have evaluated their bid), their membership is still pending. The main bone of contention is well known: the mistrust of some member states (the most vocal being the Netherlands) over the candidates’ capacity to uphold Schengen’s standards. Particularly problematic in their eyes is the persistent high levels of corruption and organized crime in the two South-Eastern European countries, phenomena which are believed to affect their ability to manage what would become de facto Europe’s borders.  The degree to which Romania and Bulgaria have made actual progress towards overcoming these problems is a matter of debate. Be it as it may, Bucharest and Sofia’s actual or perceived shortcomings regarding border control, coupled with a growing anti-EU and anti-freedom-of-movement sentiment in some Schengen members – have created an explosive mix that have rendered this crisis almost ‘inevitable’. The convergence of the two candidate countries’ reputation and Schengen members’ domestic politics is a plausible explanation for the current tensions in the Schengen regime, and one that it is shared by commentators and policy-makers alike. However, the bleak conclusion that that is typically inferred from this account, namely that the regime is entering into an inward looking phase of retrenchment, with limited prospects for future enlargements, is premature. The current dispute over the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, while certainly troublesome, is not unique in the history of the Schengen regime (Italy’s membership bid in the 1990s, for example, turned out to be a politically charged saga that lasted for almost a decade). On the contrary, this dispute can be considered as the latest symptomatic example of an enduring – and so far unsolved – tension within the regime between, on one hand, an in-built propensity to constantly expand in order to maintain the myth of Schengen as success story of European integration and, on the other, the fear of losing this very status because of overstretching, and, more generally, the fear of the unknown that the admission of new and untested members entails. This inherent tension is expressed in enlargement anxiety. As a psychological condition, anxiety is the result of high levels of uncertainty and overcommitment that an individual might face in his/her everyday life. One of the ways in which anxiety manifests itself is through resentment, which typically takes the form of overly critical language – including insults – and bullying against a designated scapegoat. From a psychological perspective, the function of resentment is to temporarily release in relatively controlled manner all, or part. of the tension affecting an individual. Seen in this light, the Romania and Bulgaria affairs is not just a cruel rite of passage, in which the two countries are enduring series of humiliating tests in order to become ‘proper’ members of the club, but also a sort of cathartic process in which current Schengen members, by vocally expressing their misgivings about the candidates, yet not rejecting their plight outright, assuage their fears and are persuaded to accept the new round of club’s expansion.  The Romanian and Bulgarian governments can only hope that this healing exercise quickly runs its course, so that Schengen’s chronic anxiety can be channeled against somebody else….

Déjà vu: Sarkozi and the spread of Schengenitis

Here we go again. Under pressure domestically? Opinion polls down the drain?Need to boost yout tight-on-immigration stance? Blame Schengen, the source of all ills!  Sarkozi docet (http://www.wat.tv/video/sarkozy-villepinte-accords-4xhqz_2exyh_.html). Hmmm, didn’t the French government play the very same political card not that long ago? Remember the temporary closure of the border with Italy aimed at preventing the ‘orde’ of North Africans fleeing the turmoil caused by the Jasmine revolutions? The French, of course, are not the first, and probably not the last, to acquire this sudden revulsion of all things Schengen .  The Danish for  a while showed signs of this condition too (before the newly elected centre-left government managed to contain it), and others have periodically been affected by it – even if just in its milder forms.  Schengenitis, however,  is not a novel ailment. The roots of the current strain can in fact be traced back to the very early days of Europe’s border control regime in the early 1990s. Then, as today, European capitals (Paris in primis) maintained an ambivalent stance vis a vis Schengen, on one hand supporting the project’s objective , and, on the other, dragging their feet  in the implementation stage.In this period, for example, the French government (then as today of right wing leanings), citing other members’ laxity, periodically relied on the regime’s ‘special circumstances’ clause to maintain or reinstate internal border controls. In these early cases of Schengenitis, however, the regime not only managed to withstand existing tensions, but its body and ‘spirit’ came out reinvigorated. In the second part of the 1990s, Schengen expanded to new members and was officially incorporated in the European Union’s institutional framework. Thanks to the regime’s institutionalization and expansion, Schengen today is even hailed as one of the most visible achievements of European integration and a key pillar of European Union’s political architecture.

Will history repeat itself? Will Schengen not just survive, but emerge once again unscathed from the ailments that periodically affect it? Some contextual factors seem to cast doubts over this optimistic vision for the regime’s future. The latest strain of Schengenitis has in fact emerged in a political climate that is rather gloomy. The inward looking attitude of a growing swath of the electorate across Europe and the parallel rise of xenophobic political movements, together with the fear of further enlargement of the regime and, more generally, a steady decline in support for further European integration, have seriously curbed the enthusiasm for the border free Europe project.

Despite the current sceptical political climate in Europe, there are some signs that the resilience that Schengen demonstrated in the past is still present today. Throughout the recent epidemics, European policy-makers, side by side complaints, criticisms and reciprocal accusations over the handling of North African migrants, have repeatedly emphasized the achievements, both practical and political, that Schengen has accomplished over the years, and its fundamental importance for the European integration project. Crucially, they have also vowed their allegiance to the regime and their commitment to support it in the future. Does this state of affairs mean that Schengen “will never die”, as Charles Elsen, former Director General at the European Council’s General Secretariat, predicted on the eve of the regime`s incorporation in the EU in the late 1990? Probably not. After all, all policy projects, like the individuals who create them, are bound to get old and eventually pass away. Schengen is no exception to this rule. Its periodical ailments and the healing periods they require are testament to its mortality. As it has been the case in the past, however, Schengenitis seem to be still treatable. Europe’s border control regime is therefore likely to live on for some more time to come, pace Sarkozi.


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