Europe on a knife edge: Has the 2015 refugee crisis put the foundations of the Schengen system at risk?

The ongoing refugee crisis within Europe’s borders has undoubtedly caused divisions between European governments over whether the common ideals of free movement are mutually acceptable and whether all 26 Schengen states share the same desire for a common European identity.  Therefore the current topic of discussion is whether the fundamental principles of the Schengen Zone are under threat from reactionary national immigration policies amidst a resurgence of state sovereignty.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the European Schengen system, the fundamental basis of the policy is the maintenance of passport-free travel and the absence of internal border controls between both European Union (EU) and non- member states. This arrangement was formally implemented in 1995 by 26 European states, with the sole intention to protect the right to free movement for European citizens and those travelling legally within Europe. Schengen has built on a policy of European integration, which has been heralded as healing the divisions of the Cold War era, and has also been conducive towards achieving greater economic prosperity. The European political establishment has until recently upheld a broad consensus on maintaining the right of over 400 million EU citizens to travel unrestricted over much of the European continent, but is this about to change?

Firstly, and most importantly, there is the dilemma of consensus between states participating in the Schengen system. EU countries on the front line of the refugee influx, such as Hungary, have resorted to exercising their sovereignty and reintroducing physical borders and barriers against the flow of people. It would be reasonable to argue that Hungary’s government regards the seemingly endless flow of foreign people as a threat to its culture and its integrity. For many Hungarian citizens it could be viewed that Hungary’s actions are justified, if this is the reasoning behind their sudden change in immigration policy. However, this attitude seems to be a world-away from the regard to pan-European identity and citizenship, which brought European countries together in the early days of implementing the Schengen system. This swift return to state sovereignty has not stopped with Hungary alone. Slovenia has resorted to using pepper spray on crowds of migrants trying to cross into the country from Croatia, in response to the unprecedented numbers of restive people. Furthermore, Croatia itself has blamed Hungary’s actions on the bottleneck of refugees within its borders and has also closed several border points, all this within a region notorious for its sectarian divisions.

However, the actions taken by central and eastern European countries have been criticised by the EU institutions and other neighbouring states, including Romania who views Hungary’s motives as being self-centred and merely passing the problem on to other surrounding governments. On the other hand, Germany has broadly pursued a different response to the crisis and has agreed to accept many thousands of refugees, welcoming them in many areas and inviting them to cross borders to reach their territory. However, even in the face of welcome migration German authorities have reinstated temporary border controls along their southern border with Austria to cope with the sheer numbers constantly arriving. Therefore, it seems that even those states with an embracing attitude towards the outside are struggling to respond to the sheer demands that the crisis is placing on the integrity of the policy.

Finally, there is the perception that the European Union has been impotent in dealing with the crisis. This is significant because the foundations of the Schengen system lie with the political direction of the EU. The intergovernmental nature of the union means that member and associate states have the right to pursue national approaches to immigration policy in a time of geopolitical crisis. Indeed, the terms of the Schengen agreement state that a person must be “legally present” on a Schengen territory. This has given a mandate to countries such as Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia to apply proper national immigration procedures against those who they deem to be on their territory without a proper asylum claim. Ironically, in this instance, these people are the refugees desperately trying to use the European right to freedom of movement.

The Schengen system can only survive if the European ideals of freedom of movement stay intact. If division between participating states continues and a tide of national border controls remains the trend, then there is the risk that the policy will fail and a borderless European continent will become something of a failed past experiment. This is a dilemma because the Schengen policy was conceived on the premise of common and consensual European identity. The refugee crisis has challenged the cooperative foundations of Schengen because it has tested the resolve of national governments to adhere to consensus and has caused divisions over how to handle the mass movement of people across national borders.

About the author

Alistair Donophy holds a Bachelors degree in Politics from the University of Surrey (UK), and has a particular interest in national and international immigration policy. Alistair’s principle interests involve both national and international politics, with a particular emphasis on social and public policy making, having carried out previous policy analysis on UK alcohol licensing policy and the integration of Roma peoples across Europe. He has also had considerable involvement with the British Liberal Democrat party, being a local activist and a researcher for a former liberal MP, as well as writing scholarly articles for his university department magazine.

Cover image ‘P1160711‘ by dm1795 / ‘Schengen-17‘ by Arno Langenfeld

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