“Tear down” this border and bring the entire Europe closer together!

Schengen reality-check

, by Mădălin Blidaru

“Tear down” this border and bring the entire Europe closer together!

Tear down this wall!”, exclaimed the US President Ronald Reagan from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, on June 12, 1987. Nowadays, there is a separate wall inside the dream of a united Europe: the internal Schengen border keeping dozens of millions of EU citizens outside the area of free movement. As in 1987, the message reverberates on both sides of the border; as in 1987, the wall, today the border, is keeping people, institutions and private actors busy with this priority instead of focusing on reform and progress. The economic and political arguments are in favor of Schengen accession of the remaining EU member states, yet the final decisions remain to be made.

If we go the preamble of the Schengen Agreement, the visionaries that pushed for the abolition of checks at their common borders mentioned clearly, from the first paragraphs, that if we want an ever closer union of the peoples of the European integration project, then the free crossing of internal borders by the European citizens and the free movements of goods and services are must-haves. Their idea, if we return to the spirit and letter of the text, was to strengthen solidarity among the populations of these countries. Then why, almost four decades after the signing of the Schengen Agreement, 30 million EU citizens cannot freely move closer to the other 400 million and have to show their ID for check each and every time they want to see their friends or families?

Romania and Bulgaria pursued efforts necessary to comply with the Schengen acquis. This has been confirmed by the European Commission. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen underlined in the last State of the Union report that “Bulgaria and Romania are part of our Schengen area”, calling for an approval of the accession to Schengen “without any further delay”. Nevertheless, a reality check is needed: for more than one decade, these 30 million EU citizens received the same message, without any end result. You need more time to prepare for your flight, you stay more at the internal borders for checks, and your parcel delivery will take longer.

The economic case for Schengen is clear, as it implies easier cross-border commuting, thus saving time and money, and benefitting from wider opportunities for business and employment; faster delivery of goods and services across the borders after the elimination of this administrative barrier, with benefits, in general, for the EU single market development, and in particular for EU consumers and transnational businesses; and at least some incentives for more European economic activity, being it trade, tourism and travel or travel. Apart from these, there is the symbolic wide-reaching benefit of an area without internal border controls: you don’t need to show the ID or passport in the EU, when crossing the border to other EU member state, as an EU citizen.

The single market is one of the treasures of the European Union. In 2023, we celebrated 30 years of the EU single market, a longevity that allows to say that one of the EU’s greatest achievements left, more or less, its youth phase of the life cycle. It provides benefits for common standards and harmonized rules, increased productivity, higher competitiveness, lower prices, supply chain integration, championing the green and digital transition, among others, but with an asterisk for the above-mentioned cases: the chicken will stay more in traffic before reaching the other side of the restaurant chain in a hypothetical same market.

Similarly, the political case is imperative, with Eurosceptic force gaining ground, using the same old-style discourse, migration-focused usually, both in Schengen-aspiring countries and in already-members. And, let’s recognize, it is easy to instrumentalise it with messages such as “Europe doesn’t want us and Brussels votes against joining this area”. Distinctions between EU institutions, political drivers or voting preferences in the EU Council are already part of sub-minority discussions.

In Granada, opening the process defining the priorities for the EU of the years to come, EU leaders committed to a common future for the benefit of all. Openly, the leaders of the European Union mentioned that “we will continue our efforts to build a more cohesive, innovation-driven, and interconnected Single Market, preserving its integrity, its four freedoms, its social dimension and its openness, ensuring a level playing field, and reducing administrative burden notably for SMEs” [4]. It is a broadly supported goal, but a second reality check is needed: cohesion is an antonym for separation, interconnectedness is limited, the four freedoms are partially available, and the SMEs have costlier administrative and market-access burdens due to the internal border checks. It is time to “tear down” this border and bring all of Europe closer together!

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