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The EU’s Schengen Show-Down

By Geoff Atchison, Transatlantic Community Analyst

Tensions are quickly rising within the EU as the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament face off in a dispute over increased border controls and changes to the existing Schengen Agreement. The institutional feud broke out June 7th, after Justice and Home Affairs ministers from the Council unanimously agreed to allow member states to reintroduce national border controls in order to combat illegal migration. Stripped of its legislative authority over the proposed amendment, the European Parliament reacted harshly, rejecting the decision and suspending all cooperation with the Council on the issue. With both migration and labor mobility representing two highly sensitive EU policy areas, Parliament has painted the potential Schengen changes not only as a legal conflict between decision-making bodies, but also as a clear repudiation of EU treaty values. Analysts fear that significant revision of the Schengen Agreement may indicate a scaling back in European cooperation and create a roadblock toward future EU political integration.


The Schengen Agreement, initially signed by Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and France in 1985, set forth the goal of removing border controls and establishing a passport-free travel zone throughout Europe. Entering into official EU law with the ratification of the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, the Schengen Agreement now includes 22 EU member states as well as Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Five EU member states are currently not a part of Schengen; Ireland and the UK opted out from the original agreement and participate selectively, while the newer member states Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus must reduce government corruption levels, eliminate organized crime and secure their national borders before they are able to join. As Europe works to protect itself against uncontrolled migration and possible terrorist threats, many wonder if border regulation should remain an EU competency or if this responsibility should revert back to individual member states.

Initial debate over border controls surfaced in 2011 during the Arab Spring revolutions as thousands of refugees fled to Europe to escape political violence and social upheaval in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of safe haven, refugees landed in Italy and Malta and then traveled across the continent to reunite with family members or establish a new life. Political and legal action became increasingly clouded as undocumented migration created an unclear triangle between internal EU security, the Common European Asylum System, and Schengen. Unable to control the sudden migration influx, France and Italy called on the European Commission to rewrite the Schengen Agreement in order to allow the temporary reintroduction of border controls. Denmark’s unilateral decision two months later to increase customs security only intensified the debate over who was in charge of regulating border controls.

A year later, in April 2012, France and Germany pressured the Council to once again revise Schengen, fearing possible instability from illegal migration and continued insecurity along the weakly enforced Greek-Turkish border. In their letter to the Council under the Danish Presidency, French and German officials pushed for increased border controls as an “ultima ratio” or a measure of last resort, temporarily establishing tighter border restrictions for a period of thirty days. Unable to ignore the issue any longer, Justice and Home Affairs ministers held a vote on June 7th, deciding unanimously that under exceptional circumstances member states could impose national border controls for six months, with extensions of up to two years. Furthermore, they changed the legal procedure regarding the evaluation of Schengen matters, eliminating the European Parliament’s co-legislative power over the reintroduction of border controls.

Members of European Parliament expressed immediate anger at the decision, outraged not only at their reduced role in Schengen policymaking, but further upset by the shift in power from the EU to member states over issues of national border control. European Parliament President Martin Schulz voiced sharp opposition to the vote, asserting that the Council’s behavior represented “a slap in the face of parliamentary democracy.” Hannes Swoboda, Austrian MEP and head of the Socialists and Democrats group, echoed the concerns of many, stating that increased control exerted by national governments demonstrated a serious threat to citizens’ freedom of movement and fundamental EU principles. In response to the changes made by the Council, the European Parliament retaliated by suspending cooperation with the opposing institution on five key dossiers related to Schengen and internal security. Defending the Council’s position before a panel of MEPs, Danish Justice Minister Morten Bødskov explained that the judgment was a “legal decision based on contents, not on politics,” and was focused on strengthening illegal migration policy. Though disappointed with the outcome of the vote, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström attempted to reconcile the two sides, reaffirming the need for a European-level Schengen review system while also recognizing the need to secure borders. As both the Council and Parliament continue to fight over the issue, analysts fear that deep institutional fallout may imply grave consequences for the future of the EU.

The Council’s decision to rewrite Schengen legal procedure and allow for the reintroduction of national border controls offers a number of serious implications for the EU. First, the implementation of stricter regulations holds the potential to spark political conflict between member states as they argue over migration policy and travel restrictions targeting their own citizens. Moreover, reimposing border controls would violate the right of people to move freely and indicate a clear disregard for basic EU tenets. The new Schengen legal basis which revokes Parliament’s co-legislative power also demonstrates the EU’s growing democratic deficit, as the Council no longer requires the approval of Parliament or the Commission in order to pass Schengen reforms. Together, constraints on the free movement of people and the reduced role of Parliament would diminish EU institutional cooperation and lead to frequent political and legislative stalemate. Above all, however, implementation of the Council’s plan would signal a movement away from increased EU political integration as member states push to recognize border control as an area of national sovereignty. Ultimately, a decision allowing member states to apply their own border controls represents a political step backward for the EU and threatens to serve as a roadblock toward future Schengen cooperation and integration.


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