Will the Schengen Spirit Ever Be Back?
Simone Disegni 12 June 2020

On June 14th, 1985 when Paul De Keersmaeker, Robert Goebbels, Catherine Lalumière, Waldemar Schreckenberger, and Wim van Eekelen met on an old boat docked on the Moselle river, they were probably only vaguely aware of the revolution they were initiating. Representing the governments of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, and the Netherlands – the “core” of continental Europe – they signed their names to a historic document: the Schengen Agreement.

Named after the tiny Luxembourgish village which hosted the ceremony, the agreement meant to enlarge to the “heavy weights” of Europe, France, and Germany, a provision which the Benelux countries had already implemented: abolishing border controls. As lorry drivers protested angrily at the hour-long queues at the Franco-German border, the agreement’s chief aim was clearly to ensure a smoother exchange of goods. But to any external observer, it would have been impossible to miss the real point: the continent which three centuries earlier had invented the very idea of the Nation-State was demolishing its very foundations.

As a much more visible division crumbled – the Berlin Wall – and the conviction that the market economy had triumphed spread, Schengen would attract a growing number of participants, and grow itself into a key pillar of the newborn European Union. By 1999, with the Amsterdam Treaty, the Agreement and its related legal acquis had become part of the core EU norms. More than any other provision, that was the concrete proof of the trust its members were promising one another. One’s territory, in some way, was also the other’s.

Yet “Schengen” was to become the symbol across the world not just of a visa-free area, but of a whole new European way of life, at least for those who could enjoy it: the new generations could consider studying, working, loving freely (or so) in any other EU country, then return, and later sail on again towards a new adventure. Without the provisions of that Treaty there would have been no Erasmus, no EasyJet, and certainly a much less integrated market.

For all the charm of this enthusiastic tale, however, today one should recognize the relevance of the other, gloomier side of the Schengen story. It was indeed against such a founding pillar of the EU – free circulation of people, goods, capitals, and services – that its citizens would turn their rage once they were given the opportunity to have their say. When the French (followed by the Dutch) shocked the Continent élites by rejecting the project of a European Constitution in 2005, dealing the most painful blow yet to federalist dreams, they were seemingly won over by passionate arguments against the job threat represented by the “Polish plumber” that suddenly appeared on the stage. Although Britain never joined the Schengen scheme, in the next “shocking” anti-EU referendum of 2016, Brexit supporters feared mostly the inadequacy of the EU’s free circulation system to contain “alarming” migration flows. And only a year before, those very fears were the ones that created a harmful, enduring division between Mediterranean and North-Eastern States due to the “threat” of Syrian refugees.

Since the 2015 migrant crisis exploded – one that Schengen’s founding parents were simply unable to predict thirty years earlier – the free borders agreement has in fact entered what resembles a fully-fledged constitutional crisis. The most telling proof is the continuously updated register of “temporary reintroductions” of border controls. According to the Schengen Borders Code, in fact, member States are allowed to take such measures “in the event that a serious threat to public policy or internal security has been established”. Until 2015, such provisions were typically used in correlation with big international gatherings, such as diplomatic summits or sporting events. As the pressure of migratory flows began growing, a number of continental EU countries rushed to reintroduce border checks, or closures, due to the “big influx of persons seeking international protection”, “terrorist threat and smuggling of illegal migrants”, and the like. Renewing such provision in many cases indefinitely contributed making the exception the quasi-norm.

The collapse of the Schengen system under the pressure of Covid-19, in this light, was less the consequence of an extraordinary event than the logical progression of a well-proven pattern.

And yet not everybody is ready to accept it silently. “I could have never imagined that in the very Schengen border triangle between France, Germany and Luxembourg we would see again queues and protests at the reciprocal border closures”, Martine Kneip, director of Luxembourg’s Schengen Centre, told me in the midst of the pandemic. “I think it does not make any sense” she added, “The virus has no passport and is not stopping at the border”.

Other than the choice itself to shut down internal borders as well as the external ones, experts and NGOs active in the field were particularly worried at the way the decision was made: chaotically. No coordination of national efforts was implemented and the Commission could only intervene at a subsequent stage to provide common guidelines to manage the new situation.

Protests and pressures for a more coherent reopening once the epidemic would allow it, however, seem to have scored their points. After three months of forced European separation, most member countries are moving to re-open their borders from June 15th.

Will that be enough to revive the original Schengen spirit?

For all the Commission’s efforts, national governments seem more attentive than ever to maintain their grip on this ancient, rediscovered prerogative. And yet, as Ms. Kneip herself points out, they are not the only actors on the stage. “Sometimes you only appreciate what you had when you lose it. And if there is something this crisis has reminded us of is that open borders are not only comfortable to avoid queues, but are the pre-requisite for the whole idea of Europe. Saving this kind of mentality should come from ourselves, from citizens, from below, rather than from the institutions”.

Should the ideals not be sufficient, the world outside seems to be doing everything possible to remind EU governments that they have little other option than reuniting to fight back the devastating consequences of the latest crisis. As well-established global trade and supply chains collapse, the US accentuate their “retreat” from international obligations, and China grows increasingly assertive; strengthening the internal market and avoiding the collapse of any other member looks like the only realistic option and with closed borders, there is no functioning market. If the recovery strategy sponsored by the Commission gets the green light in the coming months, what at first looked like a deadly blow – the pandemic crisis for Schengen – may well turn to be regarded, a year from now, as a miraculous save.


Photo: Lāsma Artmane / Unsplash

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