What COVID-19 Showed Us About The Future of Schengen and European Integration

One of the many perennial issues brought forth by Covid-19 is that of the future of the Schengen Area and borderless travel. The Schengen Area comprises 26 European countries, 22 of which are EU members, stretching from Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean to Estonia on the Baltic Sea. The Schengen Area is defined by a common visa policy and the elimination of passport and other border control measures amongst its members. Schengen’s future is an issue that both haunts and unites the EU. 

President Macron of France has announced his desire to review Schengen in the wake of COVID-19, and German Chancellor Merkel has supported a review as well. The European Commission is set to propose a strategy for the future of Schengen in 2021. Macron would like to see reform measures passed while France holds the EU Council’s rotating presidency in 2022.

Member states’ ability to enact their emergency measures and bypass Schengen elements is a critical competency of the state in times of crisis. What may have started in 2015-16 as a rallying cry for populist parties has now become the centre’s pole position. Further integration beyond Schengen is unlikely in the years ahead, as is the goal of an ‘ever closer union.’ However, despite a persistent weakening of Schengen, reports of its demise are premature. 

The Persistent Weakening of Schengen

In recent years, Schengen has been tested, most notably in the wake of the 2015-16 migrant crisis and wave of ISIL-inspired or directed terror attacks. Border walls and fences were raised from Hungary to the English Channel, and individual member states formed individual responses in the absence of an EU-wide response. The crisis management side to the EU appeared to be lacking, and for governments on the frontlines, compliance with the Brussels bureaucracy was not an option. Schengen has proved to be resilient and has factored in the kinds of crises that invariably lead member states to exert more control. It has hobbled along as the one thing that can still unite a broad swath of Europeans. The desire to live, travel, and work across all member states is a remarkable European achievement for a continent that historically has been divided. 

The EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007 created great opportunities for the former Warsaw Pact states to engage with Europe and travel freely across the continent. The Schengen Area has provided valuable economic opportunities for workers from Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, who have supported their families through remittances. These workers have proved to be an invaluable part of the UK’s agricultural and service sectors, particularly in the National Health Service. Their status post-Brexit and the status of other EU citizens to work and travel freely upon enlargement remains a significant debate in Brussels and national parliaments.

The Member State, The Centre, and Schengen

Despite moments of protectionist shock, EU citizens’ ability to travel and work freely in other member states is likely to remain a prominent feature of the bloc. However, the competencies of border controls, immigration, and visa requirements are more likely to be pursued at the member state level. National governments have tremendous autonomy in declaring states of emergency and executing other border control measures. France has used its powers many times to extend border controls after major terrorist attacks, citing the threat to its citizens and sovereignty. As one of the oldest EU member states, its actions raise no objections when viewed in the entirety of Paris’ commitment to the European project.

The most dramatic shift in recent years is the prevalence of debates about Schengen moving away from populist parties and to mainstream parties’ discourse. The Front National in France used to be the sole voice bidding for Schengen reform, but the centrist, pro-European Macron is now his nation’s fiercest advocate. This has allowed Merkel and other leaders from the EU’s oldest member states like Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy to feel comfortable advocating for reform. The reform of a core principle of EU integration is no longer seen as anti-Europe but rather vital to the bloc’s continued success. This is perhaps the most incredible legacy of the populist surge in Europe, legitimating and accepting previously fringe debates. These debates around border control measures and a respect for sovereignty were formerly on the periphery and even seen as xenophobic and nativist by mainstream political parties. After years of declining support for both centre-left and centre-right parties, Schengen reform and immigration are now key to the mainstream’s survival to galvanise a large cross-section of voters.

The Next Phase of Integration

As in any crisis, COVID-19 has shown the necessity of integration and common response, but it has also revealed more profound flaws. Hungary and Poland have blocked the COVID-19 relief bill over its being conditional on respect for the rule of law. This is a prevalent theme of Central and Eastern European member states being more likely to view integration as submission and a violation of their sovereignty. Hungary has also planned to import and use Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine, something the EU has disapproved. Under existing EU rules, Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine must be authorised by the European Medicines Agency (“EMA”) before it can be marketed in any EU member state. If Hungary chooses to administer a vaccine that is not approved by the EMA, it will mark another dramatic shift in its path away from Brussels. 

Further integration amongst the EU’s newer member states is unlikely to occur so long as access to funds is conditional on respect for the rule of law. For the EU, a concern for the rule of law is non-negotiable. EU-wide legislative debates that warrant adherence to the rule of law are likely to produce obstacles for relief bills for other crises post COVID-19. The use of bilateral processes to stall EU-wide debates, whether on budgetary or enlargement matters, remains a critical risk to European integration.

The Next Wave of Enlargement

As the EU looks to close divisions within its own ranks, it is also looking at the next wave of enlargement. At the moment, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are official EU candidate countries. However, North Macedonia’s accession talks have been blocked by Bulgaria over a language dispute, and Turkey is unlikely to move forward with accession in the near future. 

Even if Albania, North Macedonia, and others join, the most likely scenario is for these states to pursue multi-vector foreign policies that are not always aligned with Brussels. Turkey’s foreign policy is increasingly at odds with both the EU and NATO and its regional interests are much different in the Middle East. Likewise, the prospect of 80 million Turks being able to travel freely in the EU would undoubtedly heighten fears about integration within Western European nations. Turkish membership’s prospect played a key role in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, playing into the fear of jobs being lost to foreigners, and immigration upsetting ways of life across England. Under President Erdogan, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy and promoting Islam in public life is a dramatic shift from its secular founding in 1923. Erdogan’s rhetoric is now matched by both mainstream and populist parties in the EU that are willing to use Turkish membership as a political issue to mobilise voters. This dynamic risks framing Turkish membership as a civilisational clash rather than a natural partnership amongst neighbours. 

Montenegro is currently a NATO member state but remains the target of Russian influence campaigns, and even a coup attempt in 2016. Montenegro’s neighbour, Serbia, is a major economic partner with China in the development of critical infrastructure networks in its Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, for the next wave of enlargement, relations between the candidate countries and Brussels are likely to be increasingly fragile and malleable, often with competing interests. 

The Post-COVID Schengen

Europe is likely to emerge from COVID-19 with severe strains amongst existing EU member states and fatigue towards those looking to join the bloc. However, significantin European truths and fundamental rights remain inviolable, namely the freedom of movement. From the migrant crisis to COVID-19, the EU has shown to be remarkably resilient, and Schengen is at the core of that resiliency. 

A concerted effort to safeguard those uniting Schengen principles is likely to be key should Europe wish to take the leadership mantle in subsequent crises. Schengen is likely to survive, and the ability to have reasoned, passionate debates about its merits and limits is a profound accomplishment. The ability to pursue these debates will likely help member states and candidate countries embrace a dual track of autonomy and integration in the post-COVID era. 

Schengen now exists in both a globalised world and a regionalised world, one where localised political debates and multilateral economic partnerships co-exist.

Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia take pride in the regional economic and political partnership of the Visegrad Group that advocates for their shared interests. The Balkans have hyper-localised concerns over ethnic divisions, language, and history and view economic collaboration with China to be a powerful form of strategic autonomy. 

As in all European project matters, Schengen is a work in progress, often spurred to reform and modernise by consequential and definitional events. COVID-19 is a consequential event for Europe that has pushed the perennial forces of integration, cooperation, and competition to the fore. If Schengen can survive, and in fact thrive, on this duality, its place on the continent is set to be secure for a generation. 


Cover photo: “Doctor or Nurse Wearing Medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Against The Flag Of European Union” by focusonmore.com is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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