Migrants’ Right Network: Saving the gains of the Schengen agreement requires European solidarity on protection for refugees

by , under Don Flynn

Don Flynn*

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Much of the news commentary on Europe seems to assume that the Schengen open borders arrangement will vanish in the next few months. That would be a disaster. Saving it will require a reversal of the current refusal of solidarity with countries at the frontline of the refugee flows.

The interior and home affairs ministers of the EU countries are gathering in Amsterdam today and tomorrow in in what is being described as an informal meeting to discuss the latest phase of the region’s migration crisis.

The current Dutch presidency of the EU has set the context for their discussion with the dire warning that the Schengen agreement will fail within two months if a way is not fund to contain the movement of refugees now spilling out across the continent.

Though the UK is not a member of the 26 country agreement it is expected to suffer the negative consequences if it collapses.  Schengen allows for the management of migration across 8,000 kilometres of external land borders as well as a sea frontier that extend for 40,000 kilometres.

It is usually reported as a measure which provides for free movement across the internal borders of the area it encompasses, but equally important is the role it plays in standardising checks on the admission of people moving across external borders.  Critics of the system have claimed that it is failing on this account, and the admission of over one million people seeking asylum in Europe during the course of 2015 has exposed its fundamental flaws.

Exceptional pressure

Supporters of Schengen respond by pointing out the nature and extent of the refugee crisis cross the Mediterranean region over the last decade would have meant that the borders of Europe would have come under exceptional pressure in any event.  Countries adjacent to the trouble spots – Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta – would not have been immune to the flows of people being displaced by civil upheaval in nearby regions and, with or without Schengen, Europe would be in exactly the same place as it is today in dealing with issues of reception.

If the system has failings they relate more to the wider problems of political management of the EU, which is still dependent on a high level of agreement between the governments of all the member states.  From this perspective the problems which currently arise from pressures to receive refugees rise more properly from a failure on the part of these governments to demonstrate the necessary degree of solidarity with one another.

The main area in which action is required is a common agreement on resettlement. The countries at the EU’s border have largely been expected to manage the flow of refugees on their own.  The presumption on the part of governments at a greater distance from these pressure points is that they would do this through ‘tough’ measures that would rapidly turn around the greater part of the refugees and send them back to the conflicts from which they have fled.

But it has not been because of a failure of willpower on the part of the EU’s Mediterranean members that this has not happened.  The factors which have driven the refugee movements have had fundamental issues of life and death at their heart and those fleeing have not been prepared to heed ideologically driven messages that they are not welcome in Europe.  In addition the cooperation needed from countries on the refugee routes to accept the return of people who have moved through their territory has not been forthcoming for the understandable reason that they do not wish to host even larger populations of desperate people than they do already.

Saving Schengen

The ministers meeting in Amsterdam over the next two days, if they are to do any good at all, have to face up to the fact that the conditions of civil conflict across regions that arc into Europe in one direction from the Middle East and Central Asia and from the other, from East Africa and the Horn, will generate refugee movements for some years to come.  No solution to this lies in the direction of ignoring this fact or assuming that the countries closest to the edge of Europe can be left to get on and manage refugee reception issues on their own.

The agenda for the Amsterdam meeting ought to have one stark issue at its heart – either the EU comes up with a workable resettlement programme that allows refugees to move as quickly as possible to regions where they will move most rapidly to full social and economic inclusion or the much-valued Schengen agreement will collapse.

If the ministers are to prove unheeding of the moral obligation to manage refugee movements better for the sake of human rights of those involved they ought at least to consider what they will be giving up if Schengen is sacrificed to the cause of keeping people bottled up in the EU’s southern border countries.

The UNITEE blog of the New European Business Confederation (NEBC) has set out the economic value of Schengen to the entire EU region.  It sees these as:

First, Schengen permits free movements of persons and goods which ease trade within the EU, boosts tourism and facilitates exchanges. Transporters do not have to waste time at borders, trade in goods and services between any Schengen members is more effective. This increase in productivity amplifies the demand for foreign goods, improves awareness of low cost producers abroad and lowers the risks of international trade.

Second, on a daily basis, more than 700,000 people cross Schengen borders to work, study or visit relatives. The NEBC argues that this interconnection and exchanges between countries allows regions to benefit from labour market diversity and an eased transfer of knowledge. Exchange of ideas favours innovation diffusions and economic growth.

Thirdly, the NEBC says that a single visa for 26 EU countries also attracts tourists. In France, the tourism sector accounts for 2 million jobs and 7% of economic activity. Foreigners come to the EU because they know that they are able to visit more than one country with a single visa. This access boosts touristic activities, and profits for hotels and restaurants.

Finally the Schengen agreement was supposed to generate a spirit of cooperation and mutual trust and is very important across its participating countries.  The ministers involved in the Amsterdam meeting seem to be approaching each in a rancorous mood which spreads the blame for their own failings to agree workable policies to others far away.  A strategy to save Schengen and strengthen its humanitarian dimension is going to require cooperation and solidarity over the issue of refugees.  Let’s hope that comes out as the top priority over the next two days and that the EU avoids a further turn in its downward spiral into disintegration.

Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.