Brussels in bid to fix Schengen crisis with overhaul
Travel without the need for a passport is one of the European Union’s main pillars. And yet the Schengen Area, the set of rules that enables it, has been at the core of some of the bloc’s biggest recent crises. This week, the European Commission is expected to future-proof the pact, named after the Luxembourg village on the French and German borders.
Citizens in any of the Schengen countries – most EU members are, as are a handful outside the bloc - were probably happy they could travel abroad without border controls. Until more than a million refugees swarmed across Europe in 2015, fleeing wars in nearby Syria and elsewhere.
The sudden influx lead to the collapse of Europe’s migration policy, which says that countries that refugees should request asylum in the countries where they first reach Europe – often Greece, Italy or Spain - after which, in theory, they may spread out across the rest of the bloc.
Masses of people tried to make their way to the richer West from their point of entry regardless of the rules, leading dozens of countries to reinstate border. Since that year, countries put border checks back in place 205 times, compared to just 35 times between 2006 and 2014.
A series of terrorist attacks across Europe – first, notoriously, at the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015, then in Belgium and Germany – did not help much in easing controls.
And last year, the need to contain the coronavirus during the Covid-19 pandemic led to even more countries imposing travel restrictions. Some 70 years after the first beginnings of the EU, countries effectively suspended freedom of movement within the bloc.
In vain, the Commission has tried to coordinate border controls and travel restrictions between the countries that take part in the EU. But in the face of a crisis, these 27 sovereign nations do as they please – exposing the flaws of a system so crucial to what the EU is all about.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is planning to reform the system and will come up with her proposals as soon as Wednesday. The German politician has already announced some building blocs of the plan: better police cooperation, amending the rules for the free movement of people and a monitoring system to make sure countries stick to the rules.
The plan will also mention better controls of external borders – pretty much the only point countries seem to be able to agree on as they are rethinking the wider EU migration policy, in negotiations that have been stuck since the 2015 crisis. Ever since then, Brussels has been paying Turkey billions of euros to keep the worst of the migration flows outside Europe.
Talking about easing travel restrictions, the Commission on Monday presented its latest attempts to coordinate the rules for travel during the summer – all with an eye on the Covid-19 “passport” which is supposed to be ready by the end of June.
People who have been vaccinated - even if they have received only one shot out of a mandatory two – should be exempted from travel restrictions or measures such as a mandatory quarantine 14 days after they have received the jab. The same should be true for people who have recovered from the disease, 180 days after their first positive test.
The Commission also urges countries not to impose restrictions on anybody able to show a negative test upon arrival from abroad. Yet at the same time, the legislation that the European Council has agreed with the Parliament allows any capital to reintroduce limits if the disease picks up again. As so often in Europe – countries have the last word.
What the Eurocrat will also be watching:
On Tuesday, Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni will launch the EU tax observatory, a think tank under the umbrella of the Paris School of Economics that will conduct research to feed into Commission policies on tax evasion and fraud. Europe and other countries are currently rethinking the rules for corporate taxes to make them less susceptible to abuse.
Gentiloni will also present the twice-annual evaluation of the budget position of EU countries, the so-called European Semester Spring package. The EU has effectively suspended its fiscal rules during the crisis, so the exercise is far less newsworthy than it used to be during, for instance, Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. Still, the numbers will shed interesting light on the EU economy and all the measures that will be needed to get it back on track after the pandemic.