Freedom of movement Collapse of Schengen Endangers the European Dream

The recent move by several European Union countries to reintroduce border controls not only threatens the bloc's cherished freedom of movement principle, it endangers the entire project.
Danish Police officers check vehicles at the bordertown of Padborg this week.

"Oh, Europe!"

The desperate exclamation has never been more apt. Just look at the state of the European Union today.

It was Hans Magnus Enzensberger who first used the phrase in his 1987 book "Europe, Europe," which dismissed the bloc as the artificial product of an over-powerful, bureaucratic elite in Brussels with zero connection to the public.

But at the time, the union was actually a project full of hope.

Europe stood on the cusp of introducing key unifying reforms: The euro, freedom of movement in the borderless Schengen area and a banking union.

And these were steps that - despite all the crises and the many critics - helped the European community of nations to consistently grow closer together over three decades, so that it now at its core forms a dense, seemingly unbreakable network within the euro zone.

But now that core stands at a crossroads. Schengen, the agreement that sets out a borderless Europe, is on its deathbed.

The community of states is now like a leaderless herd of panicked sheep, which, now that it has started to run, could be unstoppable.

For the first time in the history of our community of states, the European Union could face a U-turn, a step backwards away from integration and back to national power.

Last week, Sweden and Denmark re-introduced passport controls along their borders. It's a strong message, a signal for the entire union.

The community of states is now like a leaderless herd of panicked sheep, which, now that it has started to run, could be unstoppable. Now that Denmark has followed Sweden and closed its southern border with Germany, refugees will either have to stay in Germany or go to the Netherlands or Belgium instead.

It's only a matter of time before the Benelux countries - Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - close their borders as well. France has already done so.

Following the Paris terror attacks, French authorities are now systematically checking identification at airports, in train stations and on highways. In doing so, the country of freedom, equality and fraternity is not only keeping out terrorists, but also refugees.

But if migrants can no longer travel to the north or west, Germany will become a dead end. Then the German government will have no choice but to stop the influx at the German-Austrian border.

Austria and Slovenia will do the same thing, and Hungary has already built its border fences. But the weakest countries will suffer the most. Greece and Italy are unable on their own to protect their long nautical borders from the wave of refugees.

And those Brussels bureaucrats, whom Mr. Enzensberger described as being too powerful, are now looking on helplessly. Perhaps the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, will claim that the border closings are merely temporary and therefore compatible with the Schengen Agreement.

At least this would keep up the appearance that nothing had changed.

 

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But the events of the past year have already shaken the E.U. to its core.

What would happen to a unified Europe when freedom to travel between its countries no longer exists? How can citizens still believe in the bloc when then have to stand in line and show their IDs at every internal border?

Schengen is a vital symbol of the European Union and one that everyone, even the E.U.'s biggest critic, understands. That alone is a reason to defend the principle of freedom of movement to the bitter end.

The European Union also faces an important crossroads economically. German business owners and managers should pay close attention to what's happening at the Öresund, the strait that separates Sweden and Denmark.

The Swedish government has shifted the costly logistical challenge of checking passports and IDs to railways and airlines.

This in turn has seriously impaired goods transports, with truck loads arriving at their destinations only after considerable delays.

Commuters are thinking about giving up jobs across the border, and tourists are staying away because they don't want to be stuck in lengthy traffic jams. This is the horrible future that could be facing border regions all over the union. 

Schengen is a vital symbol of the European Union and one that everyone, even the E.U.'s biggest critic, understands.

Companies that export their goods to other E.U. countries or employ workers from neighboring countries have every reason to be alarmed. Trade associations should lobby politicians to prevent the situation getting worse.

Otherwise, systematic passport controls at borders could soon soon cause substantial economic damage and further curb growth in the already struggling euro zone.

We can't afford passport controls to creep in beyond the E.U.'s external borders. The heads of European governments must finally get the E.U.'s Frontex border protection agency on its feet and sacrifice national powers to do so.

Stagnation is not an option, which is why the European Union has only one choice: Between integration and reverting back to individual nations.

And that's a no-brainer.

A collection of small nation states has no future in the era of globalization. Even the largest E.U. countries are dwarfs that cannot prevail on their own against giants like the United States and China.

 

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