Soldiers set up a wire fence in Slovenia, on the Schengen Area's external border. Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

Six states in Europe’s normally passport-free Schengen Area have brought back passport controls. So what’s coming next?

Right now, the idea of borderless, passport-free travel within the EU seems to be teetering in the balance. Since the beginning of the European refugee crisis in 2015, six nations have temporarily brought back I.D. controls at some or all of their internal frontiers within the free movement zone created by the Schengen Agreement. The striking thing about these countries—Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and non-EU member Norway—is that none of them are on the zone’s frontier. But all have apparently lost faith in their neighbors’ ability to manage flows of people.

Meanwhile, the dysfunctional concentration of refugees in bottleneck countries such as Greece—where extreme weather this month has led to refugees freezing in their tents—continues unabated. All this on a continent where a network of border fences has sprung up around the zone’s fringes, creating a humanitarian crisis. These fences have so reshaped the environment that some animals have seen their migration paths blocked, putting them at risk of decline or extinction.

It all seems far away from the utopian optimism of the initial Schengen Agreement, which set up the passport-free travel zone’s initial five-nation core back in 1985. This never extended across all the European Union, of course. While the control-free zone now includes non-EU members Norway and Switzerland, it still excludes the U.K. and Ireland and all of southeastern Europe bar Greece. To break up this zone with border controls nonetheless works against one of the most important aspirations of the EU expansion project that has dominated the past two decades.

So, is a Europe of free of internal border checks destined to become a thing of the past? And what are the forces placing such stress on its seams? CityLab asked two EU experts to weigh in: Elizabeth Collett, Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, and Rutgers University political scientist R. Daniel Kelemen.

Down but not out

The Schengen Agreement, which safeguards open borders within most of the EU, hasn’t been officially broken yet: The accord allows countries to reintroduce checks on their borders in time of need. So none of the seven states bringing back border guards now are trashing the terms they signed. The problem is that these temporary checks have now been around so long that they risk becoming permanent, Collett believes.

“What we see now is an increasing ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ approach, with states saying ‘As long as I'm going to be OK and can manage my borders, then I don't really mind what's happening next door,’” she says. “It’s the loss of faith in international cooperation that rings most ominously. That's where Schengen's principles have been fundamentally eroded. It was based on mutual trust, and we've lost a lot of that.”

A flawed system

If this trust has gone, it’s partly because the system was never designed to withstand tough challenges. Certainly, the premise for creating the zone was clear enough. When the Schengen Area was extended to most (but not all) Central and Eastern European EU members in 2007, it was based on a fundamental principle: Travel within the area would be free of border passport checks, but the zone’s external border would be rigidly controlled. What was absent, says Rutgers’ Kelemen, was the creation of a common front to back up the rhetoric.

“Member states essentially agreed on a system of open internal borders within the zone without establishing a common external border,” he says. “That would require common standards of border security agreed to and enforced, and states being able to call on assistance from a common force if they were overwhelmed. Without that, all states were vulnerable to entry of people through whichever state had the weakest external border. They didn't put those in place because they were felt to be infringements of traditional notions of sovereignty. That structure they created thus would only work so long as there were not huge pressures on that external border.”

The refugee crisis has ratcheted up that pressure. Greece, with a huge, easily-breached maritime border, lacked the resources to manage the flow of people coming across the Aegean, while poorer countries on the Schengen Area’s borders ended up taking a disproportionate number of refugees, compared to states deeper within the continental heartland.

The asylum issue

Complicating matters further is disagreement among EU states about what open internal borders mean. According to Collett, Western European members of the Schengen Area see maintaining open internal borders and providing asylum as two duties that should be yoked together. But Central European nations tend to see things differently.

“Taking responsibility for asylum seekers is intrinsic to Schengen, and for some Central European states, that's not something they’d previously thought through,” she says. “They always thought these two things were separate, not realizing that for Western European states, asylum and Schengen are two sides of the same coin.”

So far, EU states have allowed this rift to go largely unhealed: “Hungary and other countries put a proposition on the table a few months ago, saying, ‘We don't want to host refugees. But we’ll do more towards border protection. We’ll do borders and you guys do the rest.’ That will continue to be a difficult issue in 2017, because it wasn’t fully addressed at the EU summit in December. It sent an implicit message to [Hungary’s president] Orbán that he can do whatever he wants.”

Couple this disconnect with the permeability of the external border and you have a recipe for mutual distrust. There’s also a lack of agreement on key issues, such as agreeing at what point the situation has calmed enough to relax border controls once more. Meanwhile, the flames of this distrust are being heavily fanned by politicians across Europe.

The Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, where travelers now face security checks. TT News Agency/Reuters

Populism and border control

Across Europe, populist politicians (mainly from the far right) have tapped into fears of terrorist attacks to demand greater border controls. Public anxieties are more than justified, but the subject has become so heated that gestural politics risks overruling meaningful solutions. “The visible measures that make people feel secure—such as, say, the army patrolling the streets of Brussels or exit checks at airports—aren’t necessarily the most effective,” Collett says. “The politics of this has made it more important for governments to demonstrate that they are doing something, whether or not what they’re doing actually works.”

In other words, they’re engaging in security theater—the imposition of measures as a form of performance designed to reassure the public rather than to meaningfully tackle the sources of their worries. When that fails, public paranoia ramps up accordingly.

Control versus prosperity?

The idea of resealing national borders has popular appeal on a continent that is managing a refugee crisis and reeling from terror attacks, as well as experiencing an openly racist anti-immigration backlash. Economically, however, it’s all but unfeasible. In a zone where 1.3 billion people cross national boundaries annually for work and travel, full border controls would both hinder economic activity and create huge costs for nation states.

To give an idea of the potential scale of the disruption, The Economist asserts that full border controls would reduce the Schengen Area’s output by €110 billion over the next decade. Already, new border controls between Sweden and Denmark have led commuters to sue the Swedish state. Meanwhile, Slovenia is petitioning Austria to drop its border controls because of negative effects on the Slovenian economy. Multiply this situation to cover the entirety of the Schengen Area’s internal borders and you have a recipe for economic chaos.

Moving beyond the frontier

Is the focus on borders thus in itself a blind alley? Collett suggests that EU states may move beyond a focus on national frontiers as places to manage the movement of people towards more generalized forms of territorial surveillance. “You may see greater monitoring at internal and external borders, but you'll also see greater monitoring internally within nations as well,” she says. “It's not just physical border management—building walls—which is where most public focus is. It's also identifying people before they reach the border and being able to know when people have left.”

Wouldn’t this degree of surveillance and data-sharing infringe people’s privacy and civil liberties? Collett believes this may be the next debate that Europe needs to prepare for: “There is a clash between how far you can manage borders and still stick to the principle of rule of law, privacy, and data protection. We are going to have to have some very hard discussions about this, but currently I see the pendulum shifting in preferring security over privacy.”

Possible outcomes

Where this leaves the future of Europe’s open border policies is still up for debate. For Kelemen, the possible next stage in Europe’s border drama could lead to a consolidation and strengthening of the Schengen Area, made viable by more, not less, international coordination.

“Ultimately, Schengen will be subject to the same dynamics as the Eurozone, where a half-baked institution runs into trouble because of its incompleteness. Ironically, what’s happening now is that simultaneously aspects of it are unravelling, with this reintroduction of some borders while other parts of the agreement are being strengthened by the creation of more authority and resources for common external border security.”

There’s a clear parallel here with the Euro, a project that had a similar pan-national reach hampered by a lack of coordination. But unlike dismantling the Euro, a breakdown of the Schengen Agreement would only gradually reveal its effects, Kelemen believes. “The costs of unwinding the Euro would be astronomic, and felt immediately,” he says. “The risk with Schengen is that there are all these mechanisms that allow for temporary, partial unravelling of the treaty, so it can be unravelled more piecemeal with the consequences not being immediately felt upfront.”

By contrast, Collett sees a potential fragmentation of the borderless travel zone, a possible return to a rump free movement area. “I don't think there'd be a collapse overnight, primarily because no one could afford it,” she says. “You will just see an increasing use of internal borders, no clarity over if or when they'll be lifted, and an erosion of trust. We may ultimately see a regionalization of Schengen—Greece getting kicked out, Central Europe having its own zone, and the original six members on their own.”

Despite the divergence of opinions, one thing at least is becoming clear. A European Union characterized by open internal borders may well be reshaped in the near future. But with the system’s benefits still too great—and the process of unravelling it too complex and costly—it’s not likely to disappear entirely anytime soon.

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