TEPSA Newsletter Editorial February 2016: “Schengen has imploded: how to save Schengen?”

The EU and its member states have been completely overtaken by the refugee crisis, more particularly in view of the numbers of migrants and the intensity of the process. We were not sufficiently prepared. Whether we could have foreseen the crisis, is another question.

In theory suitable instruments were available to counter the crisis. In view of the ‘single human space’ (the de facto borderless Schengen area) created after setting up the single market, the accomplishment of some important tasks should have been ensured at the EU external borders: the registration of the claims for asylum or other forms of protection, the identification of the applicants and the examination of the individual applications. Also the return of irregular migrants to their country of origin should have been prepared at our external borders. In this whole process fast procedures should have been applied.

In practice, however, our external borders appeared to be permeable. The weak role of Frontex is certainly an element in this discussion. However, at the time this agency was founded, member states did not want to have a strong European organisation responsible to exercise, as it were autonomously, controls at the external EU borders. On the contrary, member states preferred an organisation with a mandate to merely ‘assist’ them, upon their request. As it turned out, during the crisis individual member states started to develop their own approaches, varying from respectively allowing immediate passage, showing hospitality and openness, to the closing of borders and the construction of fences. Consequently, disorder arose and migrants evidently chose to travel (only) to those member states with an open attitude towards them. In short, a result completely contrary to the principles of solidarity and burden sharing. An approach also far from the common solutions which were so desperately needed.

Who is to blame for the situation that has occurred? Certainly not the European Union or, more particularly, the Commission. Indeed, the Commission has always monitored the situation carefully and tabled suitable proposals to counter the situation. Therefore, the member states are rather to blame. Either they did not implement obligations they had accepted in an earlier stage, or they were not willing to be engaged in a process of solidarity leading to common solutions. Is Europe lacking visionary politicians these days?

What should happen now? As much as possible, we have to try to transform the present chaotic situation into the one which should have been envisaged right from the start of the crisis. That means fast procedures for the registration, identification and examination of the applications for asylum. In view of the huge number of migrants a fair system of relocation across the member states cannot be avoided, also an effective system to return irregular migrants to their country of origin is needed. A supplementary measure could be to implement the ‘humanitarian admission scheme’ with Turkey. According to that scheme, a reduction of irregular inflows into Europe will be coupled with a (voluntary) admission in Europe of (primarily Syrian) migrants who were received in Turkey but are in need of protection. Another idea could be to ‘internationalise’ the problem, and to invite other ‘safe’ third countries to take their responsibility in the crisis and to accept a number of migrants in their respective countries. It is by the way surprising that this question has not been put more explicitly on the international agenda.

At the end of 2015, the Commission presented its proposal regarding the establishment of a European Border and Coast Guard: a good proposal aiming to secure control over the EU’s external borders in the Mediterranean. Indeed, everybody understands that a common, European, organisation is needed to fulfil such a complicated task in difficult and, even, dangerous times. In the given circumstances, the full responsibility to control these borders cannot be left any longer to those member states geographically located in the territory where these borders are drawn. The European Council of 18 February has called for an acceleration of the work with a view to reaching political agreement under the Dutch Presidency. Let’s hope that the competent ministers will do everything possible to restore an effective – and common – Schengen system well before the Dutch Presidency ends.

Prof. Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General