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The end of Schengen?

By Alex Miller

“If Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned.” That was a statement made by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls last week, in regards to the migrant crisis, the Schengen Area and the EU.

What is the Schengen Area though, and why might it bring the EU house cards down? The Schengen Zone is a 26 nation area where all passport and border controls have been abolished. The UK and Ireland are the only two EU nations to opt out of the borderless area which also encompasses the non EU nations of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein along with the micro nations of Vatican City, San Marino and Monaco. The current issues surrounding the Schengen Area (named after the Schengen Agreement signed in Luxembourg in 1985) stem from the ongoing migrant crisis, with many nations imposing temporary border controls and the EU commission threatening to boot Greece out of the area for not securing its, and therefore Europe’s own borders.

EU-state sign signalling the internal Schengen border between Germany and Austria. Photo by: BlueMars

The initial issue with the Schengen Area, which was enough to deter the UK and Ireland from signing up in the ’80s, is that it stops nations knowing exactly who is and who is not in their country at any one time (including criminals), and the migrant crisis has gone on to exacerbate this problem with Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and Eritreans entering Europe through Greece and crossing the continent without being documented.

The reasons why the Schengen Agreement works for Central Europe is that it enables citizens to travel to work or events, and do trade in other countries within the EU without having to go through inconvenient border checks. Cars, buses and trains run freely through the nations of the EU, allowing citizens of this family of nations to live cohesively and effectively with one another. This system is currently under threat though due to the migrant crisis and the Paris attacks last year that prompted France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Denmark to introduce temporary border checks in areas of high migration.

Some say this is the beginning of the end for borderless Europe, and with Hungary building fences along its borders, the Eurozone financial crisis, the UK’s EU referendum and the rise of ultra right-wing parties and groups such as PEGIDA and Golden Dawn in European states, many are asking if this is the moment where the EU reaches breaking point?

The liberal parties of Europe don’t seem to have many answers for the ensuing issues. Sweden, for example, has taken in a great number of migrants but is now set to deport 80,000 refugees who do not qualify for asylum, and their historically free border with Denmark is now shut. Undoubtedly, therefore, the EU is going through the greatest turmoil in its history, but just because the left can’t solve the crises does not necessarily mean the right can either. Merely shutting the door to desperate people forced away from their war-torn homes and leaving the EU does not solve the problems that the continent of Europe and the EU are facing. What is clear in my mind is that the best way to deal with these issues is as a united Europe, and, although times are currently challenging, it is situations such as the present migrant crisis why the EU was established. The EU will survive because the best way to tackle unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers and terrorist threats is as a productive group of nations with similar ideals and aims.

The Schengen Area.
Blue: EU member states part of the Schengen area
Green: non-EU states part of the Schengen area
Yellow: EU member states not participating but obliged to join
Red: EU member states with an opt out
Photo by: IgnisFatuus | derivative work Danlaycock

The Schengen agreement is faltering, and if it does collapse for good the EU project will be deemed a failure. Without Schengen linking the states of continental Europe and with the poor history of the currency of the EU, the necessity of the EU might be brought into question.

The Schengen agreement will bounce back though; those at the head of the EU will be determined to stop the failure of the EU project and won’t willingly let the demise of the EU happen before their eyes. The inconveniences of the temporary border checks will eventually begin to outweigh the visage of stability that they bring. What’s more the temporary borders can only legally stand for 6 months. It may be a long way down the road before the Schengen system returns to its previous state but Greece has already received assurances that it will not be left in the cold, and its islands effectively transformed into refugee camps.

Manuel Valls is using sharp rhetoric to try and force EU leaders to find a solution to the migrant crisis and allow a nervous France, who are still in an official state of emergency, to maintain its temporary border past the 6-month threshold. The Schengen agreement is on hold but it is certainly not dead. The continent would find returning to a pre-Schengen situation almost impossible to live with given the benefits the people of Europe have experienced under it over the past few decades.

Sadly, I can’t see an impending comprehensive solution to the migrant crisis currently gripping Europe, and for that reason the Schengen Area will remain partially closed and significantly affected for some time to come, but this issue will not spell the end for the European Union. Schengen is here to stay and I’m glad that an organisation like the EU is in place to deal with the refugee crisis and terrorist threats that the continent is currently facing.

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