The Schengen Zone: A Blessing and a Curse for the EU

A view of a Schengen sign in the village of Schengen, Luxembourg, 01 February 2016. The town symbolizes the free movement of people and goods in 25 European countries under the Schengen Agreement signed in 1985 and 1990. EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

Two major criticisms of the European Union—its lack of internal security and its refugee policy—are the direct results of the 1995 Schengen Agreement. Having originated independently and only been integrated into EU law in 1997, the free movement Schengen Area can be seen in isolation rather than as part of the EU itself. This article will show that the “falling apart” of the EU is not because of the establishment of the Union but because of the integration of the Schengen Zone in EU law. To consider this is crucial for policymakers who are scrambling for measures to keep the Union together.

Terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany, as well as the influx of millions of refugees, have destabilized the European Union and sparked conversation about the controversial Schengen Zone. The EU, having integrated the regulations of the free movement zone in 1997 as part of the Amsterdam Treaty, has had to absorb massive criticism from a great part of its population for its inability to maintain security within that area. Through the resolution that merged the Schengen Zone with EU law, policymakers took the pivotal step of linking free movement within the 26 member countries of the zone with the European Union. However, this act has now come under scrutiny: it has become clear that eliminating border controls through EU legislation has made the union less flexible and undermined its ability to respond to the developments in the region adequately.

Merging EU Law and Schengen

With the adoption of the Schengen rules in EU law, the member countries of the zone, which are not all EU members, have left their fate to the governing body of the Union. This results in a disparity between EU regulations and rules specific to Schengen. Norway has increasingly voiced its concerns about countries’ border security on the Southern end of the Zone, advocating a central European Border Guard, but its exclusion from the EU makes such suggestions only an external recommendation. This subjects the country to the whims of EU policymakers amongst whom there is no voting representative from Norway. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland are also all members of the Schengen Zone but not of the EU. The disparity between the two established unions after merging the two legislations undermines the potential for an efficient and fair administration. For the affected countries, this means a lack of participation in policymaking and increasing dissatisfaction with the EU as long as it is unable to deal with the refugee crisis effectively.

Border Control Agencies

The agency initially in charge of controlling the external borders of the EU, called Frontex, was created in 2005. It is entirely funded by the European Union, meaning that the control of the Schengen Zone lies completely in the hands of the Union. This creates a heavy dependence and makes it impossible to see Schengen as a separate and self-sufficient entity. Due to this overlap, criticism of the Schengen Zone is automatically directed at the EU.

Cost of Suspending the Schengen Area

According to RAND Europe, a think tank based in Brussels and Cambridge, the cost of suspending the Schengen area would be more than 22 billion euros. In a report commissioned by the EU Parliament, the organization identifies the key setback to be the requirement of re-establishing border controls within the region. This shows how path dependent Schengen members have become: Governments that want to break away from the free travel zone will have to deal with increasing costs. While governments and border control units elsewhere have gradually adapted to the growing need for new methods and technologies, such establishments would have to be set up almost from scratch in the EU. Currently, there are no facilities to regulate the movement of people within the common zone. This cost, in addition to the 2-3 billion euros annually allocated for operating border control facilities as estimated by RAND Europe, poses a major deterrent for suspending the Schengen Zone. In light of such an imposing financial burden for member states, the think tank’s recommendation focuses on the support for countries at the external border of the Schengen Zone. In one of its research articles, it suggests that the EU should “create more effective border checks through initiatives such as systematic checks on EU nationals” and the establishment of a new agency in charge of border control.

In the past, there have been efforts by the EU to modernize its border control methods. In 2013 the European Parliament adopted a resolution that increased surveillance of incoming travellers and migrants. The initiative, called EUROSUR, facilitates the detection of the small and highly unsafe vessels used by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea and allows for a more successful rescue of endangered passengers. Additionally, the resolution proposes the creation of national coordination centers in the region which allow for improved communication between countries regarding incoming and exiting persons. The system enhances the exchange of information between governmental bodies, making the information centers a connecting link between different entities in control of border security. However, EUROSUR has proven insufficient to prevent the most recent terrorist attacks in the region. This is less due to the system’s shortcomings than it is to its practical applicability. As much as EUROSUR theoretically enhances security operations in Europe, the lack of resources allocated to the execution of the planned measures renders the regulation insufficient to deal with the current situation.

The Symbolic Value of the Schengen Zone

It is not only the monetary aspect that must be taken into account when considering the abolishment of the free travel zone. Much more important is the message this step would send to the international community. Since 1995, the increased efficiency and ease of cross-border trade has carried economic prosperity in the region. As the third largest economy today and a strong political unit, it would be devastating for the block to lose the close connection between its member countries. International trade would become costlier, if not in the long run then certainly in the short term. This means that the economic zone at large would suffer a blow to its reputation and a reduction in its share of the global market. Additionally, the EU’s power and role as the shepherd of its members would be undermined, making it vulnerable to the increasing pressure of countries wanting to exit the Union. The signal sent by the abolishment of Schengen could be the initiator of the dissolution of the entire European Union, judging from the outcry Brexit has caused amongst other nations whose population is inclined to exit the block.

Demerging Schengen and EU Law

The consequences of dissolving the Schengen Zone would undoubtedly pose a heavy political and economic burden for many countries. The path dependence of the Union has progressed too far as to make the abolishment of the agreement a viable option. What is it that prevents the EU from taking the Schengen regulation out of its law and making it its own entity? First, there is no security agency specifically for Schengen members. Frontex is currently an EU agency and dependent on the Union’s funding. Second, there is the question of governance over the resulting entity. Costs would emerge from the setup and operation of new organs which would include non-EU member countries that are part of the Schengen Agreement. Third, widespread concerns about Schengen’s viability on its own prevent officials from even considering this option. To isolate the Schengen Zone as an independent entity would be equivalent to abolishing it altogether because of its infeasibility on its own. It is one if not the most criticized component of the EU when it comes to popular opinion. The populace’s pressure exerted on governments would be too strong as to hope for Schengen’s survival if it were a separate political entity. This means that the focus must lie on further developing the system currently in place. Further allocation of resources to provide safe borders and reliable surveillance, however, must tackle the root of the problem which is the risk of having one part of EU law jeopardize the entire Union. The only response left for European lawmakers at this point is to attempt to restore confidence in its measures. This is best achieved by focusing on public opinion about the Schengen Zone rather than any other aspect of the EU. Concerns must now be addressed systematically, starting from the physical infrastructure to safeguard the Schengen Zone to immigration policy and cooperation with other countries. The first step now is crucial and will prove decisive for the prospects of the EU as the solid block it had been before Brexit.