Will the Schengen Area survive the pandemic?

Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Armadilly Comics

One of the predictable consequences of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been the international wave of border closures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. In the Schengen Area, where for the last two and a half decades border-crossing has been as easy as crossing a bridge, this unpleasant outcome has become a serious source of concern.

For the uninitiated, Schengen is the name of a picturesque little town on the border between Germany and Luxembourg, as well as the nickname of a 1985 international agreement on free movement of people, which currently encompasses the metropolitan territory of twenty-six European countries.

Practically speaking, the treaty has resulted in the removal of border checks between the participating countries, inevitably leading to an increase in trade and tourism, the facilitation of seasonal workers flows and the intensification of cross-border interactions in general. The economic value of Schengen has been estimated in several different ways, with the lowest figures indicating a surplus of €22bn per year.

In the current circumstances, in which unhindered movement of people across borders seems to have become a distant memory, one daring question comes to mind: will the Schengen Area survive the pandemic?

Learning from the past

Since 1990, the Schengen Agreement has prudently included provisions regulating the temporary reintroduction of controls at the so-called “internal borders” (the borders between participating countries), in order to ensure that exceptional limitations to the free movement of people are not perpetuated beyond a reasonable point.

Although there have been cases of temporary reintroduction of border checks before, such as in conjunction with multilateral summits or international sporting events, it was only with the 2015 migrant crisis that the Schengen system was put under severe strain.

The massive influx of people seeking refuge in European countries, and in France’s case, the 2015 Paris attacks have forced a number of Schengen Area member states to set up internal land border controls, mostly along migration routes. In the last five years, in compliance with the agreement, the likes of Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France have periodically notified the European Commission and the other member states of their decision to maintain checks at the borders to stem the ‘threats resulting from the continuous significant secondary movements’.

Naturally, these procedures can be quite costly, particularly in terms of time delay for road freights, commuters and tourists. Similar financial concerns, coupled with fears that the free movement of people could be disrupted indefinitely, have spurred the EU to dedicate more resources to reinforcing the external borders of the Schengen Area, including by enhancing checks and setting up the European Border and Coastguard Agency.

Looking at the present

Starting in March 2020, there has been an exceptional resort to the escape clauses of the Schengen Agreement, with seventeen countries having reintroduced controls at internal borders1 and five others having enacted measures that affect the movement of people.2

It must be noted that, under the agreement, not all limitations to the freedom of movement are the same. Indeed, there are two types of caveats to the principles of the Schengen Area: temporary border controls for cases requiring immediate action, and equivalent measures in the context of foreseeable events.

In practice, the difference lies in the notification procedure and in the maximum duration of border checks allowed by the agreement, which cannot exceed two months in the first case and two years in the second.

In this case, most of the countries that decided to take similar measures begun by notifying “urgent” border controls and, as the prescribed two months were about to elapse, informed the other governments and the Commission of their continuation in response to events regarded as “foreseeable”.

In other words, with the exception of a few countries,3 border controls inaugurated in March will continue, albeit in a softer form, throughout June, and in the case of the “wary six”,4 at least until November.

Besides reintroducing temporary border controls, a few governments have also started working together to draft bilateral deals establishing “travel corridors” between countries displaying lower risks of contagion. In such a scenario, holiday-goers coming from parties to the agreement would be subject to a more lenient treatment once landed in a partner country.

This development, strongly opposed by the Commission and the more affected holiday destinations, could engender a situation in which the principle of free movement of people is applied differently throughout the Schengen Area. To counter this prospect, the Commission has presented guidelines to help member states gradually lift travel restrictions, preferably in a coordinated way.

Imagining the future

In the complex and chaotic world we live in, it is hard to offer a credible prediction of prospective events, and this case is no exception. However, it is possible to offer a few concluding remarks on the future of Schengen.

Theoretically, we could categorize all threats to the Schengen Area as either internal or external, and as short-term or long-term. Accordingly, each type of threat would prompt a different response by the member states.

For instance, the 2015 migration crisis was mainly an external, long-term threat, which resulted in the reinforcement of external borders and long-lasting internal border checks. On the contrary, the 2020 pandemic, despite beginning as an external threat, could be considered as an internal, short-term danger, assuming that a workable vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 will be created relatively quickly.

Consequently, we would logically expect member states to take only temporary countermeasures, particularly affecting internal movements, as it is currently the case.5

Therefore, it is highly likely that the Schengen Area will outlive the pandemic, although it will take time before border checks are definitely lifted. Indeed, if the past is an indication, it would be rational to expect the continuation of ongoing border controls beyond the current deadlines.

As it was the case in the aftermath of the migration crisis, member states can easily circumvent the two years limitation by notifying a different reason for the extension. The likelihood of this scenario materializing is set to increase if common guidelines for cross-border travels are not adopted rapidly, and if the health crisis remained a strongly asymmetrical phenomenon.

Finally, with regard to the travel corridors between groups of “safer” destinations, it is still unclear whether a similar solution will materialize. The Commission has suggested adopting a pragmatic approach based on equal treatment for countries with a similar infection rate, and recently there have been reports of talks between the foreign ministers of eleven member states, mostly holiday destinations, to coordinate the reopening of their borders for tourists.

The coordination of a larger number of countries would undoubtedly facilitate the survival of the Schengen principles and the return to normality by preventing the preferential treatment of a few countries’ nationals.

1 Besides the six countries that had already been enforcing border controls, that is, Denmark, Germany, France, Austria, Sweden and Norway, the SARS-CoV-2-motivated border closures concerned Belgium, Czechia, Spain, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland.

2 Italy, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, and Slovenia.

3 At the time of writing, Slovakia, Iceland, Portugal and Estonia.

4 Denmark, Germany, France, Austria, Sweden and Norway.

5 In other words, once the threat has been dealt with, the situation would gradually return to normal, differently from a scenario in which the internal threat is long-term.

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