Borderless Europe Under Threat

The concept of a borderless European Union is coming under attack amid the refugee crisis. Critics blame the situation for accelerating the flow of immigrants, but defenders warn new borders will hurt trade.

Handelsblatt Global, September 4, 2015

The world’s biggest, contiguous single market — a vast region of 508 million people stretching from Ireland to the doorstep of Russia — is one of the most tangible achievements of the 28-nation European Union.

Since the 1990s, that market’s cohesion has been enhanced by doing away with most of the E.U.’s internal borders, allowing people and goods to move unfettered across most of the Continent, in what is known as the Schengen Area.

But ironically, that singular contribution is now under threat in the current European refugee crisis, which has elicited calls from conservatives in Britain, Hungary and elsewhere to rebuild the E.U.’s interior borders, erecting barriers to stem the flood of men, women and children.

While a return to the days of old Europe — “Your papers, please” — would certainly slow the tide of humanity flowing across the Continent this year from Asia, the Middle East and Africa — it would also dent trade, slow economic growth and could threaten an already fragile economic recovery.

The equally fragile core of the nascent European identity — embodied in the 1985 Schengen agreement, which began to roll back the bloc’s interior border controls — could become the latest victim of a refugee-inspired backlash.

“Schengen is fragile,” said Astrid Ziebarth, a migration fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “We are at a crucial point.”

With over 100,000 people entering the European Union in July alone, many countries are struggling to cope with the influx, particularly those on the frontlines such as Italy, Greece and Hungary, and popular destinations such as Germany and Sweden.

Germany already expects 800,000 people to apply for asylum this year, four times the number that did in 2014. Sweden is also coping with unprecedented immigration.

In response, the Schengen Agreement, which covers most of the 28-member bloc, except for Britain, Ireland, Denmark but includes non-E.U. countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, is under attack across Europe.

The pact eventually eliminated the need for passports, border police, customs barriers and checkpoints when it came into force in 1995.

Critics of Schengen argue that a border-less Europe has added to the refugee crisis by encouraging people to try to enter Europe, knowing they can traverse the continent unencumbered to their final destinations.

Britain is one of the countries leading the call for reforms to Schengen. Last week, the U.K. interior minister, Theresa May, argued that the refugee crisis has been “exacerbated by the European system of no borders.”

And the former Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, now a member of the European Parliament, said the migrant crisis had revealed flaws in Schengen just as the financial crisis had for the euro common currency.

“We don’t have adequate institutions,” Mr. Verhofstadt earlier this week told the “Financial Times” newspaper. “Europe is a master of putting in place a policy and then not putting in rules and institutions absolutely necessary for these policies.”

But proponents of open borders warn against overreacting, arguing that Schengen is being falsely blamed for what is really a failure of the European Union to adequately coordinate a unified asylum system.

“The implementation of the Schengen rules are under great stress,” said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the United States who is now a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “The question is how can we add additional arrangements to the Schengen Agreement, which could precisely cope with and tackle the present pressure.”

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