Franco-German Schengen Proposal: A Vote of No Confidence in Europe

A Commentary by

Germany and France's joint proposal to allow Schengen-zone countries to temporarily reintroduce border controls as a means of last resort might sound harmless. But doing so would damage one of the strongest symbols of European unity and perhaps even contribute to the EU's demise.

Border sign posts in Strasbourg, France. With the EU's eastward expansion, its external borders have become more porous. Zoom
AFP

Border sign posts in Strasbourg, France. With the EU's eastward expansion, its external borders have become more porous.

Germany and France are serious this time. During next week's meeting of European Union interior ministers, the two countries plan to start a discussion about reintroducing national border controls within the Schengen zone. According to the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and his French counterpart, Claude Guéant, have formulated a letter to their colleagues in which they call for governments to once again be allowed to control their borders as "an ultima ratio" -- that is, measure of last resort -- "and for a limited period of time." They reportedly go on to recommend 30-days for the period.

Of course, using catchphrases like "ultima ratio" and "limited period of time" is supposed to make such policies sound reasonable and proportionate. After all, the reasoning goes, it's just a few occasional border controls for up to 30 days. What's the big deal, right?

But the proposal is far from harmless and would throw Europe back decades. Since 1995, the citizens of Schengen-zone countries have gotten used to freely traveling within Continental Europe. Next to the euro common currency, free movement is probably the strongest symbol of European unity. Indeed, for many people, it's what makes this abstract idea tangible in the first place.

Schengen Is Admittedly Imperfect

To throw this achievement into doubt now is a vote of no confidence in Europe. The fact that this proposal is coming in the middle of the French election campaign makes it even more suspicious. With his back to the wall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pretending to take a tough-guy stance toward immigrants. And the fact that Germany's interior minister is allowing himself to get caught up in this charade is regrettable. Still, if you take a look at his party affiliations -- as a member of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- it's hardly surprising.

Nevertheless, Friedrich must still answer the question of what prompted this change of heart. After all, when Denmark announced that it would reintroduce border controls last year, he was the one warning against casting doubt on travel freedoms. But now he's playing along with this populist game himself.

Granted, the Schengen system is not perfect. With the EU's eastward expansion, its external borders have become more porous. The problem areas are well-known: Greece doesn't sufficiently guard its border with Turkey, and Italy simply allows refugees through to continue their journey into neighboring countries. Doing so violates the Schengen Agreement, which stipulates that immigrants have to be taken care of by the country in which they arrive.

The Last Thing the EU Needs

Still, both of these problems appear to be solvable without simultaneously watering down the principle of free movement. One can strengthen border protection and find a better way to distribute refugees within the EU. The only thing needed for such measures is political will. Indeed, putting restraints on Schengen freedoms is the last thing Europe needs right now given the fact that the euro crisis has already put serious strain on European unity. Populist maneuvers on other issues cannot be allowed to further hasten the trend toward renationalization.

On top of all these concerns, one must also ask what 30-day border controls are supposed to accomplish. No one can seriously believe they will change migration within the Schengen zone in any meaningful way.

Instead, one is led to believe that this is much more of a matter of symbolism for Germany and France: They want to make it clear that governments bear ultimate responsibility for their borders and can always seal them, if necessary. This is a demonstration of strength against the European Commission, which recently asserted its right to have a voice on issues related to border controls.

But this symbolic act could have drastic consequences. It is a relapse into the type of nationalist thinking that many viewed as part of the past. And it brings to mind a country that continental Europeans like to make fun of for its obsession with its own borders: Great Britain.

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The Schengen Agreement
In 1985, the Schengen Agreement paved the way for taking down barriers at border controls between Germany, France and the three Benelux countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the same time, it obligated these countries to better protect their external borders.

Signed near the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, it would take until 1995 for the treaty to bring down border gates for good.

Today 25 countries have signed on to the agreement. Even non-European Union members Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are within the Schengen Area. Bulgaria and Romania would also like to join, but have so far failed to meet the requirements. Schengen membership forbids systematic border controls. While random checks are allowed, anyone with the correct identification will still be allowed to freely cross borders within the area. Under current rules, Exceptions are permitted only when countries feel their domestic security is threatened. France made use of this rule during the NATO summit in 2009 to conduct controls along the German border to prevent violent demonstrators from accessing the event. Major state visits, high-level meetings among politicians and large sporting events have also prompted temporary border controls in some nations.

But it is not just EU citizens who have enjoyed unprecedented freedom of travel in Europe since the Schengen Agreement was signed. Citizens of other countries with a valid Schengen visa also profit. But if their visa expires, they are required to leave.

More than 400 million people live inside the Schengen zone, which has land borders measuring more than 7,700 kilometers (4,784 miles) in length and sea coast of some 42,700 kilometers. Rules of the agreement are found in the Schengen Borders Code, which names the conditions under which countries can reinstate border controls. Both Italy and France have recently done so in reaction to the flood of refugees coming from northern Africa following political uprisings there.

Under Article 23 of the Schengen Borders Code, a member can reintroduce controls at inner EU borders "in the event of a serious threat to public order or national security" for a limited time period of 30 days or as long as the threat continues. These security measures must remain in accordance with the code, though. Article 24 requires countries that feel this may be necessary to inform the European Commission and other member states of their reasons for doing so.


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