Saturday 28 July 2012

Schengen: the price of forgetting Europe’s foundation

Henry Norman

Under discussion is the possibility of a return to internal border checks for up to two years. EUObserver.
You can certainly count on the European Union to give one a lesson on sovereignty and the limits of liberal institutionalism. The justice and home affairs council recently announced that it wished to amend the Schengen agreement in order to allow member states greater control of their borders. Add to this a seriously disgruntled European parliament and you know you are in trouble. On learning of the proposed amendments, Martin Schulz, President of the European parliament, argued that the councils actions were, ‘unilateral and counter-productive.’ Therefore, not only does the reestablishment of border-checks threaten to rock the very foundations of the European project, but the way in which the discussions have been played out expose the vulnerability of a parliament currently sensitive to wide-scale disenfranchisement. As a result, two recurrent and profoundly controversial issues collide dangerously within this one debate. 

On the one hand we had what appeared to be the sidelining of an international parliament. Martin Schulz had this in mind when he commented that ‘any reform process must be carried out on the basis of the existing Community institutions and in keeping with the principles of parliamentary democracy.’ Furthermore, the Danish presidency, in moving ahead with such proposals, exhibited a decidedly state-centric agenda.  To many the reintroduction of border controls during a swell of immigration levels represents the disintegration of many of the core principles of the EU; namely the free movement of its people. These are sentiments one would wholeheartedly concur with. The success of the current arrangements can be measured by its wide-ranging and taken fore granted benefits it grants to the citizen. A borderless continent for the European citizen is now taken as a given, not something we ponder whilst we move country to country.  

The existing state of the Schengen Agreement. BBC.
So lets look closely at what exactly the Schengen agreement actually states as this will perhaps clear up some of the arguments made against it. The agreement clearly states that the ‘Schengen area represents a territory where the free movement of people is guaranteed.’  In other words, it does not deal with migration outside of the European Union and to assert otherwise would be a gross conflation of different issues. 

Such conflation stems from the recent Arab spring and the growth in illegal immigration into Italy and other Southern European countries that has resulted. As anger has grown in the Northern member states of France, Germany and Denmark, it is not surprising that populism has so flauntingly influenced policy. Schengen, however, is the wrong policy to tamper with in order to rectify such a situation. Any security threat that may result from illegal immigration post-Arab spring is external and not due to weak policy in the form of Schengen.  I would suggest that work should be done to fortify the Mediterranean borders so that such a situation can be mitigated. This would avoid an image of member states battening down their hatches against other more vulnerable states such as Greece to the pressures of protecting their borders. 

Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the great swathes of illegal immigration that have already occurred during the past year and the effect it will have on the more prosperous European states. However, Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, has commented that such a move "undermines the achievements of the European integration."  The Schengen Agreement already allows for reintroduction of border controls in exceptional circumstances and so if it is national security that is cited as a reason for an evaluation mechanism then surely Schengen is already adept? For example, France was able to restore border controls temporarily after the July 7th bombings in London.  

Therefore, the question that can be raised from this whole affair is what is the point of the EU at all if its branches of governance are so obviously sidelined? I would argue that the reintroduction of border controls comes at a very opportune moment and exhibits the growing fear amongst European leaders that financial armageddon is heading towards Europe. This is a point picked up by Phoenix Capital Research who argue that the real motives behind the evaluation mechanism is to halt ‘people from fleeing with their money when the collapse comes.’ Although rather sensationalized in the article, it helps somewhat answer the question I began this paragraph with. It would send an image of a divided Europe and not one of a union coming together multilaterally to solve some complex issues. It would fracture a union created after a fractured post-Cold War continent. 

In terms of the British position, then in the words of French President Francois Hollande, "they have refused the logic of Schengen for the past 25 years." The UK have wished to maintain their own border controls (however unsuccessfully) although they are party, as is Ireland, to the Schengen Information System which is basically a Europe-wide crime database. 

All in all, talks of Schengen’s revision are not something the UK should take as vindication of their position.  The UK has consistently argued that its stance is based on the increased, unchecked asylum that would result.  However, illegal immigration is not the only reason for Schengen’s reevaluation; the potential default of Greece and others pose a far greater threat. As a result, if there is indeed a fleeing of capital country to country, no border controls, however reinforced, can stop the contagion that will follow. Whilst Europe can and will get over the financial crisis, what message would it send that in some of Europe’s direst days , member states resorted to acting unilaterally and forwent the very principles upon which it was founded. That is a something I fear Europe could never come back from.   

No comments:

Post a Comment