The Schengen Zone and the Modern Day Crisis

On 25 January 2017, the European Commission (EC) recommended that five countries from the Schengen Zone extend border checks for an additional three months. This proposal requires approval from the European Union’s (EU) 28 member states.

According to the European Commission, the Schengen Zone, established in 1995, is “an internal area without borders where persons and goods can circulate freely.” Under the 1985 Schengen Agreement, the zone officially abolished passport and border controls along mutual borders decided upon consensus vote and operates under a common visa policy. Member states eliminated border controls with other Schengen members and strengthened border controls with non-Schengen states. The zone includes twenty-two of the twenty-eight EU member states, four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) member states- Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, and the microstates of Principality of Monaco, Republic of San Marino, and the Vatican City State.

The implementation of emergency border controls started after over 1.5 million refugees arrived in the EU between 2015 and 2016, the largest refugee crisis Europe has faced since the end of World War II. Several Member States resorted to a “wave-through approach” at the border, allowing migrants to travel swiftly north through a route created through the Western Balkans. Although the European Commission states that the migration crisis is “calming down”, the Western Balkans route remains fragile with an irregular number of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece.

“Despite the progress and steady improvements over the past months, we are still not back to normal, unfortunately. That is why today we recommend prolonging temporary internal border control in the same five member states for…three months,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU migration commissioner, said.

The EC also believes that the conditions of the “Back to Schengen Roadmap” have not been fulfilled. The document, published in March 2016, “set the clear mandate of restoring the normal functioning of the Schengen area, and to do so in a concerted manner, while giving full support to Member States facing difficult circumstances.” Initially, the roadmap aimed for December 2016 as “the target date for bringing to an end the exceptional safeguard measures taken”.

“Significant progress has been made to lift internal border controls, but we need to solidify it further,” said European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans.

The EC’s recommendation primarily concerned Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and non-EU member Norway. The five countries started implementing emergency border controls in September 2015. The most recent measures, due to lapse in February, were extended with the Council Recommendation of 11 November 2016. The EC’s proposed extension allows for border controls until May 2017.

The EC’s concern lies with the countries’ internal borders. Save for Austria, the concerned countries lie on high-traffic waterways and contain prominent ports. The Recommendation fact sheet released by the European Commission outlines its concerns:

  • “Austria at the Austrian-Hungarian and Austrian-Slovenian land borders;
  • Germany at the German-Austrian land border;
  • Denmark in Danish ports with ferry connections to Germany and at the Danish-German land border;
  • Sweden in Swedish harbours in the Police Region South and West and at the Öresund bridge;
  • Norway in Norwegian ports with ferry connections to Denmark, Germany and Sweden.”

The EC states that the border controls are to be based upon thorough, frequently updated risk analysis and intelligence, demographic research and limited in scope, frequency, and time according to “what is strictly necessary to respond to the serious threat and to safeguard public policy and internal security.” The EC emphasizes to the concerned nations that the border controls be instituted only as a “last resort” measure.  In addition to weekly analyses of risk and adjusting the intensity of controls to suit the analysis, the approved Member States must provide a report to the EC monthly.

Article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code outlines that “the Council may prolong, on a proposal from the Commission, the initial period during which temporary internal border controls are authorised, no more than three times for a further period of up to six months and up to a maximum period of 2 years, if the exceptional circumstances persist.” After the most recent extension and analysis of migration statistics, the EC states that the prolongation should not exceed three months and aims to help the Member States gradually phase out their respective temporary border controls.

Another step taken to secure the Schengen Zone came in September 2016 when the European Council gave approval to the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG). The EBCG, also referred to as Frontex (Frontières extérieures or “external borders”), works to provide “integrated border management at the external borders” and ensure “the effective management of migration flows and provide a high level of security for the EU. At the same time it will help safeguard free movement within the EU and respect fully fundamental rights.” Frontex was established in 2004 as an agency to coordinate border control efforts. In response to the migrant crisis, the EC proposed to expand Frontex’s mandate and create the ECBG. The EBCG consists of the Frontex agency with expanded tasks and works in coordination with the border and coast guard authorities of the Member States.

“The way we manage our external borders directly affects the entire Schengen area, including its internal borders. The European Border and Coast Guard will help us better face today’s challenges together. Only with effective management of our external borders can we return to normality within Schengen. There is no other way,” Slovakia’s Minister of the Interior and President of the Council Robert Kaliňák said.

The influx of people into the continent caused disputes over EU states over how to provide for them, straining the EU’s unity. In March 2016, the EU made a deal with Turkey to control the number of people attempting to enter the European continent. After that deal and joint efforts to secure borders and limit migration by Member States, approximately 360,000 people made it to Europe last year.

“These controls cannot go on forever and they will not go on forever,” Avramopoulos said.

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