Freedom of movement between European countries is one of the great EU achievements, but it’s not irreversible, nor to be expected.
The village of Schengen is a mere row of houses between the Moselle River and the vines of Pinot and Riesling climbing the hills behind the settlement. Germany is on the other side of the river, while France is one kilometre away to the south.
Belgium is only a 30-minute drive away and in two hours, you can reach the Netherlands. It is no accident that 30 years ago, this small Luxembourg village of just 5,000 people was chosen as the location for the signature of the agreement to abolish internal borders between European countries. In these parts, borders have always been perceived as an obstacle, not a safeguard.
Having to pass through customs posts to go to harvest vines on the other bank of the Moselle or to visit a loved one across the river was clearly not practical. During World War II, in a village accustomed to mixing and living with foreigners, the biggest blow was the destruction of the bridge connecting the settlement to Germany. However, Schengen was to get its revenge big time. That bridge was rebuilt, and a further thousand symbolic bridges were erected along with it because every border that is removed is as if you’ve built another bridge between nations. Today, Schengen is a symbol of a new culture offering freedom of movement instead of barriers.
The historic importance of the Schengen Agreement – signed in the village on 14 June 1985 by delegates from Luxembourg, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands – has often been underestimated. This is true for all great achievements that have generated such widespread improvement in well-being that they become the norm. The majority of Europe’s citizens today chiefly identify the European Union with the freedom to travel, study and work anywhere in the EU (see illustration). Moving between countries is routine for hundreds of thousands of commuters. Fewer and fewer Europeans can remember having to queue for hours at border crossings.
Today’s freedom may seem normal, but it is the result of a revolution. A century ago, borders had almost sacred connotations in Europe. They defined nations and boundary violations led to vendettas and wars. Customs posts and checkpoints littered the continent.
However today, we often only realise we have crossed into another country when our mobile phones signal they are roaming (a new type of barrier to tear down).
Very few people who enjoy this freedom would want it revoked. Nevertheless, the achievements of Schengen were not immediately apparent and are far from irreversible. After the agreement was signed in 1985, it took ten years for the five pioneering states to effectively dismantle the checkpoints on their mutual borders. Slowly, the area of free movement extended to include almost all EU countries, except the UK and Ireland (which chose to opt-out), and Cyprus, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, which are now all on the verge of joining. Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland are members of Schengen, even though they do not belong to the EU.
While internal border checks have been abolished, Schengen area countries can reintroduce them temporarily under exceptional circumstances for security reasons. However, the EU’s external borders are still there and have been strengthened. In addition to each country’s own security forces, these boundaries are also controlled by Frontex, the EU’s own border agency.
In spite of the huge advantages resulting from the removal of Europe’s internal borders, including economic benefits, in recent months, public debate has returned to questioning Schengen.
The pressure of migration on Europe’s outlying countries, especially in the Mediterranean, has increased the need for improved management of external borders and of greater solidarity among EU countries to accommodate asylum-seekers. These are questions of historic importance, perhaps representing Europe’s greatest challenge so far this century. But this has little to do with Schengen.
Some political forces – usually the extreme right wing – have exploited security fears and called for internal borders to be reinstated. Their message has struck a chord with public opinion. But how credible is it?
Increased migration towards the EU is not the result of the freedom of movement in the Schengen area; it is caused by the increasing number of wars and the extreme poverty in countries neighbouring Europe. Rebuilding EU internal borders would not reduce these flows: if anything, it would modify the migration routes. Nonetheless, refugees have a right to asylum, while the majority of illegal immigrants living in Europe actually came by plane – perfectly legally – and then overstay their visas, usually in the original country of arrival. Furthermore, accusations that removing borders has helped crime are largely unfounded. Criminal organisations were working like multinationals long before Schengen. In reality, instead of aiding criminals, Schengen has made their lives harder thanks to improved cooperation and information sharing between EU member states’ security forces. Today the continent is safer than the past. According to the latest Eurostat data, between 2003 and 2012, crimes punishable by custodial sentences, such as murder, theft or drug related offences, fell by 12% in the EU.