Are Schengen Border Controls the New Norm?

Many young Europeans take the freedom to travel through much of the Union without having to pass border checks for granted. With the reintroduction of “temporary” border controls, this privilege may be coming to an end.

In 1995, the Schengen Agreement entered into force, allowing citizens from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to travel freely across each other’s borders. Schengen gradually expanded to encompass 26 nations, 22 EU states, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Today, millions of Europeans benefit from what is widely considered one of the European Union’s greatest achievements.

The Schengen Agreement not only makes the lives of commuters easier, it is also a boon for tourists and creates a big boost for businesses that rely on just-in-time deliveries. A 2016 study by the European Parliament’s think tank estimates that heavy duty vehicles would lose up to 60 minutes if border controls were to be reinstated in the Schengen zone. Despite these benefits, some EU Member States have reintroduced border checks within the Schengen Area.

“Temporary” reintroduction of internal border controls

As a result of the vast number of migrant arrivals in 2015 and 2016, nine countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden) started introducing internal border controls, making use of Article 29 in the Schengen Border Code (SBC), which allows border checks to be reinstated when “serious deficiencies to external border control (…) put the overall functioning of the area without internal border control at risk”.

European leaders have countered their critics, who pointed out that placing police officers at Schengen frontiers should only be applied “as a last resort”, by explaining that the checks would be temporary. Almost four years later they are still going on.

Having exhausted the two-year time limit set by Article 29, six of the nine countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden) shifted to other legal routes, which allowed them to arbitrarily prolong border checks. In this area, the European Parliament only has a consultative voice.

Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian Member of the European Parliament and Rapporteur for temporary reintroduction of border control at internal borders, has criticised France and Germany for their unwillingness to negotiate a compromise. She has argued that Schengen border checks violate EU law and that it might be “time for the Commission to act against them in Court.”

“Significant secondary movements” despite sharp drop in arrivals

In April, the six countries announced that they would extend these border controls, which are due to expire in May, by six months, disregarding a clear majority vote in the European Parliament to reduce the time limits and tighten conditions for imposing controls at internal Schengen borders.

Even though the number of migrant arrivals has dropped to pre-2015 levels, EU leaders speak of “significant secondary movements” and “security threats” at their countries’ borders as a way of justifying their border policies. For Marie de Somer, Head of Migration and Diversity at the European Policy Centre, these decisions are “not grounded in fact-based public policy considerations” but instead aim “to appease the electorate”.

In her analysis of the Schengen Area, de Somer argues that the centrist and right-centrist governments that have ordered these internal border checks are doing so purely to project an image of being tough on immigration, to provide their voters with a sense of control and security and to offer a counterweight to nationalists and populists. In the long term, however, she suggests that this is likely to reinforce and even legitimise anti-immigration rhetoric, setting a wider acceptance for restrictive migration policies and normalising internal border checks.

Portugal’s secret to countering far-right populists

Permanent border controls are being justified with vague claims of security threats, at the expense of people who live and travel in the Schengen area. Instead, European leaders should address the fear mongering campaigns of far-right populists and stop undermining one of the main pillars of the European Union, the free movement of people.

As a source of inspiration, they could take a look at Portugal, one of the few European countries to keep far-right populists at bay. In a recent interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk, the Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa explained his philosophy: “The worst thing is when we, politicians, are scared, and show this fear publicly. Because that's what really creates insecurity."