Schengen reform: a bluffer’s guide

With the reform of the EU’s passport-free travel area under discussion in the European Council today, here is a bluffer’s guide to interpreting developments. 

Why did the system collapse during the Arab springtime?

It’s a bit of a puzzle: in the 1990s, Schengen states managed to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants. Since then, they have adopted measures to deal with such challenges together, introducing tools to help one another with border control and with mass influxes of refugees (Frontex, the common borders agency; 2001’s temporary protection directive). Moreover, the Schengen Area now includes 25 members. Yet, last month, the system collapsed at the sight of just 25,000 Tunisians.

Why has this bigger, apparently more integrated bloc stumbled over such a small number of immigrants from North Africa? It is tempting to put it down to racism – to the idea that the EU can deal with white immigrants from, say, the Balkans but not with North Africans. The reality is more prosaic. The arrival of the 25,000 highlighted a simple fact: the Schengen states have so far only pretended to work together to meet common challenges. With the gradual enlargement of the Schengen Area to 25, the bloc has actually undergone disintegration rather than integration.

Take, for example, the move in 2004 to drop the rule that common policies on borders, asylum and immigration must be adopted by unanimity. This shift to supranationalism is often taken as a sign of the governments’ deepening integration on Schengen-related matters. Actually, the reverse is closer to the truth: it shows how member governments can bypass the lack of agreement between them and adopt policies without an active consensus. This means that the bloc has indeed adopted common rules, but they tend to be loose and poorly formulated.

What reforms are needed to strengthen Schengen?

The Arab Spring highlighted the weakness of this setup. Faced with an influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers from Tunisia, southern EU states could not force their northern partners to help them. For their part, northern EU states wanted southerners to improve their own border standards and asylum capacities so they could deal with the problems themselves, but again the rules were not strong enough to force this. With each side frustrated, trust broke down and unilateralism broke out.

To prevent this becoming a regular occurrence, the Schengen bloc needs to introduce a stronger system – one that allows southerners to gain reliable help from northerners whilst increasing northerners’ scope to make southerners raise their standards. Southerners would thus have to agree to the current plans for greater supervision (stronger Schengen evaluation mechanism; more robust standards on the ‘second wave’ of asylum standards). And northerners would have to agree to provide border resources on a general basis (boost Frontex’s power to call upon national resources) as well as to take in refugees in case of a crisis ( for example via a proper EU asylum resettlement scheme).

But it is still unclear whether the current crisis has overcome the old obstacles to this kind of quid-pro-quo between North and South. Predictably enough, southerners have been resistant to the plans for greater supervision and northerners have been critical of stricter rules on solidarity. Moreover southerners themselves are in no hurry to sign up to tough rules on solidarity – they like to receive help, but they are not so enthusiastic to provide it. And northerners are keen on supervision mechanisms to deal with tricky southerners, but simply can’t face the idea of being supervised themselves.

Does it matter if the reforms fall short?

There have already been headlines such as “Frontex strengthened ahead of summit”,  suggesting success is possible. Yet,  it is crucial to ask in what way Frontex has been strengthened. In the past, the Schengen states have boosted the Commission and the EU agencies (the new Asylum Support Office; Frontex) precisely because there was no agreement between them. Giving centralized bodies the power to act on their behalf was easier than actually working together. If the member states simply boost Frontex’s capacity to act independently of them – to build up and deploy its own border resources – they may strengthen the agency but not necessarily the passport-free area.

The key task, then, is for the European Council to achieve an active intergovernmental consensus around slippery values such as “solidarity”, “trust” and “mutual responsibility”. Since these values are relative, this is best done through precisely the kind of political wrangling we have seen over the past weeks. Such wrangling gives each state a feel for the others’ problems and capacities. But if the member states today short-circuit this process and simply empower EU bodies to act for them, it will be hard to maintain trust and cooperation between them when a crisis breaks out. With new rules on the table permitting the reintroduction of national controls, this could be a fatal flaw.