Bad omens, good omens: how does a restored Schengen look like?

Ouch! Schengen is in trouble…

On May 10, 2016, the museum created to celebrate the Schengen regime—evocatively located in the eponymous Luxemburg town by the river Moselle—was damaged by the collapse of one of its ceilings. Happening in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, it was an eerie omen of the regime’s current predicament. Indeed, an increasing number of cracks have begun to appear in what is still considered a central pillar of European integration. The breakdown of the Dublin Convention arrangement brought about by the sudden flow of Europe-bound migrants and the ensuing squabbles over the EU-led redistribution of asylum seekers across the continent, together with the reintroduction of internal controls, have rattled the regime’s foundations. A rising populist backlash against the idea of a “border-free Europe” has also brought into question the regime’s raison d’être and challenged its legitimacy.  In this context, it is not surprising that references to “the end of Schengen” have become ubiquitous.

Schengen restored…for now

In all this doom and gloom, finally some good news. After a year long hiatus, the Schengen museum has just reopened, and patrons are once again able to marvel at the regime’s accomplishments. Can the (real) Schengen follow the same path and return to its original shine? Well, maybe it can. After all, it is not the first time the Schengen regime has experienced periods of turmoil. In the early 1990s, for instance, the French government’s recalcitrance to fully lift internal controls at its borders stalled the regime’s  launch. While the possibility exists that the reinstatement of internal border controls within the Schengen area may become permanent, the European Commission and all member states have confirmed their commitment to lift these checks once the emergency period is over. Moreover, there are signs that the current crisis might actually lead to the regime’s further integration, as the recent upgrading of EU border agency Frontex suggests.

The strongest argument in support of the Schengen regime, however, is that even if it were to collapse, the need for European governments to address migratory pressures on Europe would not disappear. Unilateral actions such as the permanent reinstatement of national border controls might replicate the phenomenon of The Jungle, the notorious makeshift camp erected—and disbanded in October 2016—in the Northern French city of Calais. A Europe-wide “Jungle effect” would be politically untenable. It is therefore difficult to foresee a solution that does not involve at least a modicum of cooperation among European governments and some level of coordination from EU institutions. In other words, the most likely scenario in the case of the regime’s collapse is a Schengen redux. Such an arrangement would resemble the current one, but with its priorities reversed. The strengthening of external borders, hitherto considered a compensatory measure to balance the lifting of internal ones, would become the primary objective. A border-free Europe would remain a desirable outcome worth pursuing, but not if this meant compromising security. This shift of priorities is already apparent in the current post-crisis context; yet it is, at least on paper, only temporary and ad hoc. In the Schengen redux scenario outlined here, it would be become official and permanent.  This new arrangement would also be less institutionalised, with more emphasis on enhanced cooperation. One of this scenario’s downsides is that, since the lifting of internal borders is dependent on the strengthening of external ones, Schengen would compromise its primary source of legitimacy, namely its close connection with the European integration project. By diluting this historical tie, the political will to keep Schengen alive, even in the form of “Schengen-light,” would be seriously reduced.

European policymakers would certainly welcome a Schengen’s ‘restoration’ along the lines of the real-life entity the museum celebrates. They would also be pleased if the “renovations” they are currently considering work out well, and if they do not turn out to be mere temporary patches. If the latter turns out to be the case, another serious incident affecting the Schengen regime might offer them no choice but to demolish its entire structure[i].

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[i] This post is a (revised and updated) excerpt from a chapter on EU border management that I wrote for  Routledge’s Handbook of Justice and Home Affairs Research (edited by Ariadna Ripoll Servent and Florian Trauner)

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