The Schengen Agreement is - as this quote by Jean-Claude Juncker shows - at the heart of European integration. A single currency would hardly make sense without the unobstructed movement of people and goods but even more important, the spirit of Schengen, the spirit of cultural exchange and cross-border cooperation, would be shaken to the very foundations. To travel without passport controls from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the northern lights in Finland, from the stony island of Iceland to the sunny shores of the Aegean is for the younger generation a normality. In itself it is one of the cornerstones of a Europe that enhances personal freedoms and doesn’t erect barriers between its people. We need not only to protect this freedom but also to move ahead and finalise the project that began with the abolishment of the EU’s internal borders in order to move out of the crisis mode that Europe has been stuck in for the last years.
Already shortly after World War II, Young Europeans have been calling for the establishment of a European Federal State, with a European Parliament and a genuine European Government. Exactly on 6th August 1950, Europeans from 7 different countries staged a nonviolent protest at the French-German border where their fathers and grandfathers faced each other in battle before. With the peaceful burning of the French and German border tollgates, they made clear that borders will not separate us from each other again. 35 years on, their calls have been heard when the abolishment of border controls within a United Europe became reality with the signature of the Schengen Agreement. However, nowadays, almost twice the time it took the national governments to respond to their citizens’ demands, the content of the Schengen Agreement is in peril.
In 2015, terrorist attacks have struck the continent and the number of people escaping from war and misery trying to reach European soil has increased substantially. Confronted with these European - if not global - challenges, several governments within the European Union have resorted to isolationist measures. They have closed borders, built fences and crawled away into their national nutshell. Nevertheless, in light of an ever increasing interconnectedness within Europe and with the world beyond our shared borders, these measures will in no way defend our freedoms. Moreover, while the reintroduction of border controls was a necessary step in the imminent moment of crisis, it must not become a permanent mechanism with which we respond to the challenges we are facing.
If European citizens, European politicians and the governments of Member States do not want to give up on an open Europe where individual freedoms are enhanced, the border controls within the European Union have to be reduced progressively. The opportunities for a deepened integration resulting from the current crisis need to be seized.
In order to win back the hearts and minds of the European citizens the European external borders have to be secured effectively. If one State within the Schengen Area introduces border controls today, the bordering countries are compelled to introduce their own controls until this domino effect will have reached the EU’s external borders. To prevent this knock-on effect the European Union should find the courage to regain control of the too often chaotic situations we have seen in 2015. Thus, the efforts invested in a common European external border management have to be increased extensively. At the same time, a common European asylum system has to be established in the spirit of European solidarity which was profoundly lacking over the last months.
National Governments have so far done too little and too late as they are not living up to the commitments they have made. European and national authorities as well as citizens need to make clear that further cooperation and sharing of sovereignty are the answer to the perils that the Schengen Agreement has found itself in. In order to effectively move beyond the crisis-mode, a European Border Guard and a European Asylum system are needed in addition to a European Government that will provide its citizens with the freedom they are demanding today as they have done in the past.