Belgian Police conduct identity checks at the French border. Reuters Pictures/Francois Lenoir

As the EU struggles to handle its refugee crisis, passport-free travel across the region is under threat.

To say that the European Union’s open border policies are embattled is an understatement. Increasingly, it looks like they could be on the way out for good.

On Monday, Belgium announced that it had reintroduced border controls on its frontier with France. Over in Denmark, the government agreed on Tuesday to extend its policy of passport checks on the German border for the third time, while Sweden has kept similar checks for travelers arriving from Denmark. Austria has already built a wall at its busiest frontier crossing with Slovenia, and last Friday it introduced a cap of 80 asylum applications per day, after which its border would be closed to further applicants.

The complete end of open EU borders hasn’t come just yet. The Schengen Agreement that guarantees free movement among EU and EFTA member states (excluding the U.K., Ireland, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus) allows for the reintroduction of border checks in times of emergency. Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis is just the sort of emergency this clause was designed to address, but it’s putting the agreement under such strain that EU figures have been warning that the union has only a few months left to save Schengen.

European Commission

Border checks and caps are being reintroduced because many EU states fear they’re unable to manage the flow of refugees across their frontiers. In 2015, EU states received 1.3 million asylum applications, the greatest number coming from Syria. This number is somewhat more manageable than the 2 million refugees in Turkey, or the more than 1 million in tiny Lebanon, but it’s putting many states under strain—a strain they fear will get worse.

Belgium’s moves, reintroducing controls and 290 extra police officers, come as the “Jungle” refugee camp at Calais, barely more than 30 miles from the Belgian border, faces imminent eviction. The camp’s estimated 5,500 residents aim to reach the U.K., hoping to smuggle themselves onto the trucks and trains that pass through Calais to cross the English Channel, either by tunnel or ferry. It’s a goal many have chosen because they speak English, have connections in the country, or think it will offer them better job prospects.

For these refugees, time is running out fast. A legal appeal from the camp managed to stave off eviction on Tuesday, but a decision could be taken Wednesday. With the beach season on the way, the Belgians want to keep the refugees away from their country’s short, heavily developed coastal strip, where some might also try to reach the U.K. via the ferry crossings at Ostend and Zeebrugge.

Bringing back border controls doesn’t solve the refugee problem, of course, but merely displaces it. Austria’s moves to police its border more rigorously, in particular, seem to have created a knock-on effect throughout Southeastern Europe. Slovenia also started building its own fence on the Croatian border in November, and on Monday its parliament approved the deployment of the country’s army to manage the refugee flow at the border. Further south, borders have been tightened between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece, allowing Syrians and Iraqis to pass but barring Afghans. There’s even some discussion of sealing the Macedonian border with EU assistance, effectively turning beleaguered Greece into a giant refugee camp.

Moves like these haven’t been enough to stanch the flow. In October, Hungary closed its border with Croatia, an EU member but not yet a Schengen signatory, complementing its already fenced-off border with Serbia. Now, increasing numbers of migrants are simply cutting through these barriers to enter the EU. Still, with an effective joint EU response to the refugee crisis still elusive, whatever temporary respite gets achieved by a more tightly managed border remains attractive for many EU states—notwithstanding the misery it can cause hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the threat of death.

Europe’s ability to respond effectively to a humanitarian crisis is not the only thing under threat. A study published by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation this week estimated that the collapse of the Schengen Agreement could cost the EU up to €1.4 trillion over the next decade, costs incurred more by the slowing of cross-border transit for goods than by border maintenance expenses themselves. With no clear end to the crisis yet in sight, the project of European integration is facing its toughest test yet.

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