On the 19th January, Donald Tusk, the European Council President, speaking to the European Parliament, warned EU has “no more than two months” to solve the migrant crisis and save its passport-free Schengen zone.
“The March European Council will be the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it does not, we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen,” he stated. The free-travel zone has been in existence since 1985 and it represents the embodiment of the European project, one of the most tangible results of the EU project. The 26 countries in the Schengen area allow their citizens to travel freely across the bloc, without the need for passports or border checks.
“The cost of non-Schengen is very high,” added the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, pointing to the many cross-border workers and transport companies in Europe.
The current situation in the Mediterranean and the resulting pressures have highlighted some weaknesses and uncoordinated reactions by Member States in the management of Schengen. The Schengen system has already been suspended in some countries like Denmark, Germany and Sweden, which have introduced controls at their borders in an emergency bid to stem refugee flows. This week, Austria became the latest EU country and member of the Schengen area to tighten border controls. And Hungary said on Tuesday it stood ready to build one at its border with Romania any day if migrants switch to that route instead of going via Croatia.
The EU spent most of 2015 devising policies to cope with the arrival of more than 1 million people fleeing conflict or poverty but few are having a real impact. Thus, while recent events have provided a spark of urgency to bring this to the table, long-standing, underlying inconsistencies and unresolved issues have provided scope for some Member States to act unilaterally, and not necessarily with an EU perspective.
Tusk said that statistics over the Christmas period are not encouraging, with over 2,000 [migrant] arrivals to the EU per day, and this shows a the failure of Europe to deliver on commitments to curb the flow of refugees and migrants reaching the continent. Even the EU deal with Turkey, which provided Ankara with €3billion in aid in return for a commitment to stop people leaving Turkey and travelling on to Europe “was still to bear fruit”, Tusk said.
In the wake of these exceptional circumstances, Europe urgently needs to reinforce the governance of Schengen and of the external borders, taking into account short-term needs of strengthening external borders, as well as a broad approach to asylum and migration. This must be considered in the light of our neighbourhood policy, trade with North Africa and support of democratisation, as well as Europe’s own long-term labour shortages and efforts to boost European competitiveness.
If Members States fail to get a comprehensive and shared migration strategy and to make it works, the Union would “fail as a political project”, vanishing efforts to build an integrated Europe for the future. From this point of view, the best way to avoid putting Schengen at risk is exactly to reinforce the rules of governance of Schengen and clarify some of its aspects.
Immigration is a European challenge, immigration requires a European response.