If the Schengen accord finally buckles under the weight of Europe’s migration and security crises, the world’s biggest border-busting experiment will probably end as it began: with a long traffic jam.
Some three decades ago it was angry truckers protesting over Franco-German border queues that pushed Paris and Berlin to meld their frontiers. It was a vital step towards what became today’s Schengenland — a 1.7m square miles zone of passport-free travel in the heart of Europe.
Today, the neat row of cones along Germany’s A3 motorway crossing to Austria, funnelling cars to a crawl in front of watchful police officers, give a glimpse of how the 26 country enterprise may wither and die.
Such border controls are supposedly ad hoc and temporary. But they have left the Schengen zone “partly comatose”, according to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president.
The implications are hard to overstate. The Schengen zone’s lattice of open roads has allowed goods and people to commute across borders for 20 years. Almost half of Luxembourg’s workforce lives outside the Grand Duchy. The freedoms are one of the most tangible benefits of European integration, and the physical lubricant to a single market.
Robert Cooper, a veteran Brussels diplomat, regards it as the “genuine advance of civilisation”.
What is now threatening to roll it back is a surge of nearly 1m migrants so far this year crossing the sea to Europe from the Middle East and north Africa. The sheer numbers have prompted a desperation in national capitals to try to regain some control over who enters their territory.
Meanwhile, the recent revelation that at least three of the jihadis who took part in the Paris terror attacks sneaked into Europe under the cover of the broader migrant flow, has confirmed security experts’ worst fears about the vulnerabilities the Schengen accord creates. Once a terrorist penetrates its external frontier, they can easily roam through the entire zone.
Rainer Muenz, a migration expert at Erste Bank, notes the Schengen accord was “conceived with the Iron Curtain in place”. Communist regimes were the external border police. “It was easy to have an open-door policy when almost nobody could come,” he said.
Brussels is trying to shore up the Schengen accord with a host of initiatives, from migrant quotas to appealing to Turkey to curb the inflow. But what if these don’t work? Here are four scenarios.
1. The expulsion of Greece
Greece is the Schengen zone’s Achilles heel: the main conduit for migrants to the rest of Europe and arguably the EU’s least capable state. Any country would struggle with the influx its eastern islands face from migrants massed in nearby Turkey. But its failure to seal its borders or fully process asylum claims makes a mockery of the principle that the first entry state is ultimately responsible for a migrant’s fate. Instead, Athens tends to allow migrants to journey onwards so that they become someone else’s problem.
“This dereliction of duty is the main reason the Schengen accord is falling apart,” said one senior European official handling the crisis.
Buried in the Schengen code are powers to suspend a country for “systematic deficiencies” in border management. Long dubbed “the Greek clause”, vexed EU leaders are now considering whether to use it.
In some ways expelling Greece makes little difference. It shares no land border with the Schengen zone. So its expulsion would probably not curb the onward flow of migrants. Its reception conditions were also considered too poor, by law, for migrants to be returned to them from elsewhere in Europe. Yet senior EU officials feel the threat may be the only way to convince Greece to shape up and request urgent assistance from the EU border agency, Frontex, which it refuses to do. Some officials blame “Greek incompetence”; others fear that, like Italy, it will never enforce rules that make it a migrant buffer zone for the rest of the EU.
2. The creeping return of borders
Fences are springing up along Schengen zone borders. What Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, was pilloried for initiating just a few months ago is almost becoming best practice. Slovenia is rolling barbed wire on its Croatia border, Austria along the Slovenian border (within the Schengen accord). Non-EU Balkan countries on the route up from Greece are to follow.
Borders are not entirely closed, but that option will exist now for some. Within the Schengen zone, too, Germany, Sweden, Austria and France are imposing more limited restrictions, with EU permission. The Paris attacks have given impetus to tighten rules further. The EU insists the measures are extraordinary and time-limited. But all capitals know these will be hard to reverse.
3. An archipelago of asylum camps
With fences and obstacles comes the need to manage concentrations of migrants. Passau in Germany, Spielfeld in Austria, Sentilj in Slovenia — old border towns such as these may ultimately host Schengen zone “transit areas” and “reception centres”. Europe would see an archipelago of asylum camps arise on its borderlands.
Some prefer that these centres be located in the country of entry — Greece or Italy — or along the Balkan route to Croatia. Yet wherever they are, compelling people to stay will require barbed wire, coercion and possibly force — and will be wrenching for European values.
“The pictures will be horrible, but what else can we do?” asked one senior northern European official. They already are. A Kurd in Macedonia who was this week deemed an economic migrant, as opposed to a refugee, stitched his mouth together in a hunger strike.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia and a wartime refugee, says such camps may be unavoidable. “We were put in prisoner-of-war-camps, along with the lice and bedbugs and fleas,” she said. “When you have hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their home, you have to put them somewhere. Being a refugee is simply grim. That is what it is.”
4. Schengen retreats
If Greece is the Schengen accord’s Achilles heel, Germany may be the force holding it together. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected the idea of “sealing ourselves off”. She is also not prepared for German guards to use force against refugees.
Yet pressure is building. The anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland, which campaigns for “closed borders” to avoid “terror in Germany”, is growing. Even one Jewish community leader this week backed immigration quotas, warning that many of the new arrivals do not share German values of tolerance.
Reinstating full border controls would be hugely expensive. Officials lack the staff, equipment or infrastructure. Were it to happen, the Schengen accord may revert to the mini-zones, such as the Benelux or Nordic free movement areas, that pre-dated the project. Such a break-up could mark a dangerous collective loss of trust. “If the spirit leaves our hearts, we will lose more than the Schengen,” said Mr Juncker. “A single currency does not exist if the Schengen fails.”