The importance of Schengen for neighbouring countries has been reflected continuously in negotiations. The EU has used its attractiveness towards third countries to pursue its foreign policy goals. It succeeded in bargaining visa facilitation or liberalisation for substantial structural reforms in candidate countries or even in countries far away from this perspective. The carrot of access to the Schengen Area still remains a mighty tool in the hands of the EU during negotiations with countries of the European Neighbourhood, from Morocco to Belarus. In 2013 visas were abolished for Moldovans, a reward for choosing closer integration with the EU over a customs union with Russia. As recent researches demonstrate, this form of political conditionality favours the adoption of domestic reforms in third countries, at least when it is getting closer to EU promoted standards. However, political will of local governments remains crucial for the implementation process to move from words to action.
Furthermore, the Schengen area has a fundamental indirect effect on third country nationals who enter the EU with short-term visas. By travelling, studying or working within the EU millions of third state nationals, particularly from neighbourhood countries and particularly young people were able to explore the experiences of freedom of movement given within Schengen. Compared with non-migrant peers, they showed more democratic and pro-European orientations.
Once back to their countries of origin, they were able to share their views with their peers and influence them to bring some change in those countries. That virtuous process brought to the EU enlargement towards the East and the establishment of the Eastern Partnership in mid-2000.
By being aware of this experience, aiming at a more effective EU neighbourhood policy, the positive effect of a more solid and deeper Schengen Area cannot be underestimated. It has to be considered how travelling in the EU may have a positive influence on third-countries nationals’ minds. Of course, this is not just a one way road.
The mutual benefits for the EU are striking. The EU and its neighbours would benefit from a better understanding of each other and from a possible convergence on political views. The perspective of the reduction of security challenges in the EU neighbourhood is more concrete with a mindful management of the external border. The recent humanitarian crisis brought a surge in irregular immigration, moving over the Mediterranean Sea and the Western Balkans. A lack of EU common foreign policy and failures of European Neighbourhood Policy contributes to instability at the EU borders. War in Syria and Iraq and political crisis in Libya produced an impressive number of asylum seekers that unveil how dysfunctional the EU asylum policy is.
The logic of the Dublin Regulation put a disproportionate amount of pressure on frontline EU Member States holding the common EU external land and sea borders.
To preserve Schengen’s main achievement of internal free-borders, a unified asylum system is needed, in which burdens are shared equally as well as the responsibility for administration, funding, and finally repatriation or integration. Moving away from a reality in which implementation of a common policy resides on Member States’ political will and national budgets, a real common asylum system is more than needed.
Recently, the European Commission made several comprehensive proposals in order to address the shortcomings of the Schengen system. To overcome the Dublin regulations, a temporary relocation system has been introduced, but it has resulted inadequate due to big numbers and was opposed by several Member States.
Secondly, a proposal to create a common European Border and Coast Guard was published on 15 December 2015 to better secure European External Borders. By reinforcing FRONTEX and better equipping it financially and capacity-wise, the Europeanisation of external border management offers a way to safeguard Schengen. Although a redesign of Schengen is urgently needed due to conceptual shortcomings highlighted by the refugee crisis, several Member states prefer to bury their heads in the national sand. Member States are exploiting the scope of Schengen to establish temporary, for now, controls at their internal borders.
Hard to believe that putting up a fence would stop a refugee, who flees from war, death and destruction. Seeking asylum is not a crime, thus European values and the principle of solidarity between Member States are clearly at stake.
In conclusion, the Schengen Area is a promise to the youth of neighbouring countries which can, if carefully applied, lead to improvements within the Neighbourhood. But taking responsibility for the common external border is an obligation for every Member State and must be reflected in the creation of a common European Border and Coast Guard. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that allowing asylum to persecuted people is an international obligation under the Refugee Convention, a regional obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights and an EU obligation under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.