Less than two weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, has suggested that the Schengen Area should be suspended for 24 hours in order to show the citizens of Europe what it means to live without it. He said: “Shutting the frontiers for a day would show people what it means to wait two hours to get into Italy or Spain, to have controls everywhere, to block all exchanges.” He also added: “One day. So that people see what it is to be outside Europe. It’s terrible what I’m saying, but it would be good for people to understand.”
Of course, one could certainly argue that a leader of a European Union Member State should not threaten to suspend one of the privileges that European citizens have been enjoying for quite a while, just to show them how good they have it. However, for several years we have been constantly hearing a lot of criticism towards the Union and its work and, although at least some of it is legitimate, very little is being said about quite a few of the positive aspects. So which one is the Schengen Area? And what is it in the first place? I will do my best to answer these questions for you (and for myself as well).
The free movement of persons is one of the four key freedoms that the EU is supposed to fully implement across its Member States. The Schengen Area is the key agreement that allows for that freedom. It has been first signed in 1985 in a Luxembourg village of Schengen, outside of the EU’s predecessor’s – the European Economic Community’s – legal framework. In 1990, the Schengen Convention, dealing with the implementation of the Schengen Area, was signed. Next, throughout the first half of the 90s, it evolved into a border-free zone and common visa policy agreement between several of the European countries, culminating in its establishment in 1995, with 7 countries participating at the time. In 1997, the Schengen has been written into the Treaty of Amsterdam, making the Schengen Area part of, the already existing, European Union’s legal framework. The Treaty came into force in 1999.
Although only 5 European countries have been there in Schengen in 1985, the agreement has been continuously enlarged since the very beginning. Currently, there are 26 states that have signed the agreement and have been fully accepted as members of the Schengen Area. Out of the EU Member States only 6 are not part of Schengen: Ireland and United Kingdom (due to special agreements they are not obliged to join, despite being part of the EU) and Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania (they are obliged to join, however, first they need to meet the requirements and receive unanimous approval from the European Council, which, for political reasons, is currently difficult). On top of that, EFTA countries (i.e. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) are also members of the Schengen agreement. Additionally, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are de facto members due to their open-border agreements with the Schengen Area countries (Italy and France).
The main goal of the Schengen Area is to abolish border control checks between the member countries. Before, crossing a border in Europe could take several hours (even more in some cases), which was frustrating not only for tourists, but especially for those who did it frequently, e.g. workers living close to borders or transporting industry workers. Therefore, Schengen not only ensured the free movement of persons, but also helps to facilitate the other two other of the EU’s freedoms: the free movement of services and the free movement of goods. Anyone who can legally enter one of the member countries is allowed to travel across the area freely. On top of that, Schengen Area citizens do not need their passports to cross borders, instead they only need their IDs. Additionally, Schengen coordinate their visa policies towards the third countries – establishing a free-border zone within the Schengen Area necessitated a more strict external border in order to ensure continued security across the member states. In general, the Schengen Area also deals with harmonising rules and laws of all its members, that deal with border-crossing, visas, border security and checks, both within the area and at its external border.
The Schengen Area certainly greatly benefits its citizens and businesses alike. Crossing a border in Europe is now as easy as travelling from one city to another within a single country. This makes it convenient for tourists, who have to spend less time at the frontiers, for workers who can easily travel to work each day across borders and to businesses who can save a lot of time and, thus, money when importing or exporting their goods across the continent. It is now also more coherent for people from outside of the EU – they do not have to apply for visas and permits in every country in which they stay. Although it’s difficult to estimate the economic benefits of the Schengen Area (or the costs of abolishing it), especially that it is now simply entrenched within the legal framework and culture of the continent and also because of the sheer volume of persons and goods crossing borders every day. Still, according some of the estimates go at around €110 billion in the next decade! And this is just in terms of money. The foregone opportunities, the inconveniences, the costs for businesses and employees and the additional spending for border control could very well turn out to be much higher.
Just like about everything, the Schengen Area also has its drawback. Abolishing border controls means that member states have little to no control over who is entering their country by land. This could prove to be a huge threat to security and it has been used as an argument by many politicians across the continent as to why the Schengen Area should be suspended or even abolished, particularly in the wake of the migrant crisis. However, two things need to be pointed out here. Firstly, according to the Schengen agreements, the member states can temporarily suspend open borders due to important security reasons. For example, this year, France suspended Schengen because of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, due to Euro Cup 2016 and due to Tour de France. On the other hand, Poland suspended it due to the NATO Summit in Warsaw this summer and World Youth Days. Secondly, closed borders do not prevent terrorist attacks or other threats to security. In fact, the amount of deaths in Western Europe as a result of terrorism has been decreasing (with a surge in 2015 due to attacks in Paris) since before the Schengen Area has been established. That is not to say that Schengen Area has prevented terrorism. Rather, it is meant to show that opening borders does not necessarily mean that threats to public security will increase. Nonetheless, it is indeed more difficult to control who is entering the country and, after all, the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks in November 2015 have been operating from Brussels, Belgium, outside of France. An additional problem with opening the internal borders is that strengthening the external ones has become a necessity. This has hurt economic activity and cross-border communities on the Schengen’s frontiers, e.g. in Poland, which, before the Schengen Area, were subject to some special regulations and thus could flourish. Still, under certain conditions, the so-called local border traffic can facilitate the movement of people (e.g. until recently, local border traffic facilitated exchange between Russia’s Kaliningrad region and two of Poland’s regions).
Is the Schengen Area beneficial for Europe? Or are its drawbacks significant enough to get rid of it altogether? Well, Schengen continues to facilitate cultural, personal and economic exchange in the EU. It’s been there for quite a while and the new generations don’t even realise what crossing borders looked like before. It has entrenched itself as one of the most visible results of the EU’s policies and, perhaps because of that, we sometimes take it for granted. The drawbacks on the other hand are manageable. Security has not been significantly threatened due to opening the borders, as some claim. Still, all the member countries have to continue cooperating in this area to ensure that their citizens are safe. Therefore, unless national sovereignty and full control over borders are imperatives for you, the economic and political benefits of the Schengen Area should be easily observable. Therefore, if suspending it for 24 hours (or more) is necessary for us to preserve it, then maybe Luxembourg Prime Minister’s idea isn’t that bad after all.