The migrants and refugees streaming into the European Union have cast a dark shadow on the Schengen agreement: when everyone enjoys freedom of movement, it isn’t possible to regulate the number of people in any one EU member state.
Recently, German Police Union head Rainer Wendt called in the German press for border checks to be reinstated, saying it is the best of all measures for dealing with the refugee problem.
Wendt was quoted as saying that Germany should not take its threat of bringing back checks off the table without grandstanding in Brussels.
The German police have found allies on the Schengen issue. Denmark, too, intends to reinstate border controls, while continuing to comply with the Schengen visa agreement.
The foreign minister of Denmark’s new right-wing government, Kristian Jensen, said at a recent meeting with German colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier that Denmark is looking for dialogue with Brussels and the European Union as well as Denmark’s neighbours on the subject of border checks.
The Danish Foreign Ministry confirmed the plans, with border checks seen as a way of ramping up the fight against illegal immigration and smuggling. “There won’t be a border barrier and it’s not … on the border. There will be checks in the border areas,” said Lars Peter Levy, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, in The Guardian.
Denmark has already reimposed border checks once before, in 2011, when a past right-wing government took office. After major criticism from other member states, it scrapped the checks.
The Schengen area currently includes 22 European Union member states, including Estonia. In addition, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of the zone.
It seems that the current options range from bad to worse. Why? The Schengen area’s lack of border checks has been one of the most popular features of the European Union. The community itself has made much of it; its communications stress the lack of border checks and the advantages that being in the EU confers. Now, however, the migrant issue looks to cut down on the popularity of the European Union itself. There have even been voices in Estonia saying that Estonia should leave the EU in order to not have to accept refugees. And thus the question can be phrased do we want to have freedom of movement in future, too, or do we want migrants?
The existence of the Schengen visa area is of course a problem in light of the flows of migrants. If voluntary quotas are established for accommodating refugees, it will remain open how the refugees will remain in their designated destinations.
In the bigger picture, reimposing checks at borders would however mean a brake on integration in the European Union. Even the risk of a “Grexit” is quite real and this would deal a setback to integration. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has put any further EU enlargement on hold for the next five years. On top of it all, the United Kingdom could leave the EU. That would change the very nature of the EU.
Reinstating checks at Schengen border will presumably also not solve the immigrant problem. Border checks will not end the chaos in Libya or the civil war in Syria, nor will it soften the Islamic State’s zealousness in setting scores with what it sees as infidels. The likelihood of change will come only when European Union countries work together.
This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on 13 August 2015.