Mini-Schengen not an option, for now

A Schengen border placard in Germany. [Wikipedia]

A majority of EU countries seem to be hostile to the idea of a “mini-Schengen”, capable of better controlling its common borders, which was floated by the Netherlands at the end of last year.

But some admit this could be a last recourse. The EURACTIV network reports.

Last November, it was reported that the Dutch cabinet is looking at the option of developing a smaller open border area made up of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. This ‘mini-Schengen’ area would work together and control its external borders more carefully, the paper says. The aim is to impose better checks on asylum seekers on arrival.

Later, it was widely reported that Berlin was in favour of the idea, in a slightly bigger format, including France. Those excluded are the Central European countries, punished for not being willing to relocate migrants, as well as Italy and Greece, who are regarded as ‘guilty’ for doing too little to guard their borders, and at least register the incoming refugees.

Also excluded are the Scandinavian countries, but those in fact have a history of border-free regimes much older than the 1985 Schengen agreement.

In the meantime, the Netherlands now holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and its Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said that no visionary ideas should be expected from him or his administration during the stint.

If the idea of a mini-Schengen was to advance, it would probably take place outside the EU treaties, and eat away at the Union’s fabric. Keeping a borderless pace functioning, however, appears to be an economic imperative.

>>Read: Juncker: Restoring borders will kill internal market

Germany: It’s not (yet) on the table

In the meantime, Germany made it clear the idea is not on the table, or at least not yet. Berlin’s position stays unchanged and the goal of preserving “Schengen in its entirety” remains, an interior ministry spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany.

“Freedom of movement within the Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the people of Europe,” said government spokesperson Steffen Seibert a few weeks ago. “We want to hold onto a free Schengen area,” he added.

However, Seibert also said that Schengen can only function when the management of the external borders is guaranteed. “A free Schengen area and effective protection of the external borders are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

Josef Janning, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) Berlin office, says a mini-Schengen is still a realistic scenario. He explains that politically, Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot allow the same amount of refugees to arrive as last year, some 1.1 million people.

Furthermore, when countries such as Greece refuse or fail to protect the external borders more efficiently and more and more EU member states suspend the Schengen system and reintroduce internal border controls, then alternatives have to be considered, he said.

For Janning, the alternative would be a full-size Schengen, but without uncooperative states like Greece and Hungary, or even a “mini-Schengen” with a common budget and a Schengen border police, instead of Frontex, and a common refugee fund.

Establishing a mini-Schengen would, however, involve scrapping a lot of integration policies and could open a Pandora’s Box of sorts, the ECFR’s director fears.

“It will be another instance of demonstrating that European integration is not a one-way street. This would be especially true of the period before the founding of a mini-Schengen model, if the old version collapses,” he said.

Germany could benefit from a miniaturised version of Schengen, especially since it would be collaborating with neighbours with which it is economically and politically close. “It will be advantageous for Berlin when Schengen functions right and when all the member states are prepared to share the burden of the refugee crisis,” he concluded.

France: We don’t want to hear about it

Officially, France does not even want to hear about a mini-Schengen. On 18 January, Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister who is seen as a possible replacement next month of Laurent Fabius as foreign minister, said that “cooperation inside Schengen area had to be “strenghtened”.

But the issue is often discussed by the opposition centre-right party Les Republicains.

Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the party, has declared that “Schengen is dead”, and said that a common immigration policy was necessary before opening borders. But this does not imply that a small Schengen would be a solution even for the right, as European topics are less and less at the top of their agenda.

An official who asked not to be named told EURACTIV France that the Dutch floated the idea of a min-Schengen mainly to put pressure on others for solutions regarding the refugee crisis. But the Dutch presidency will not push forward in this direction. “The decisions that have been taken now have to be implemented, and each member state has to accept its fair share of refugees,” the source said.

Belgium: More efficient border controls needed

A spokesperson of the Belgian foreign ministry told EURACTIV that Schengen is one of the biggest achievements of the EU and that it should be maintained as it is.  But he added that Belgium inisists that controls at the external borders should become more efficient, and that the decisions to set up “hotspots” should be implemented. 

The EU has decided to set up “hotspots” to have migrants at least registered in Italy and in Greece. Greece is reportedly dragging its feet in implementing the hostpots, prompting calls thta it should be excluded from Schengen.

Belgium is at the heart of the Schengen border-free area and has hosted the Schengen secretariat as part of Benelux, its union with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, until the EU took over the initiative in 1999. 

Spain: It’s a Northern bluff

A source at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told EURACTIV Spain that for Madrid, Schengen was seen as very important for the economic Union itself. This is why, the source say, for Spain it’s a priority that everything already agreed under the EU framework regarding the migration crisis, is implemented as soon as possible.

Carmen González, an expert on EU affairs at the Spanish think tank Elcano, told EURACTIV Spain that the proposal of a “mini Schengen” is a “bluff”, a calculated strategy by some northern EU countries to press southern countries to improve their border control mechanisms.

She added: “This does not mean that it would be impossible. The idea of a mini-Schengen has a clear target: you need to start controlling much better the borders of Italy and Greece, and the system must work, not being in a state of collapse as it is now.”

González added that if the “hot spots” continue not to work, if member states do not send the personnel to strengthen FRONTEX and if everything remains on hold, then it would be necessary to create this mini-Schengen for those who want to become members of it. But she cautioned that arriving at that point would need many steps.     

Poland : We understand why countries suspend Schengen

The Polish government is opposed to the mini-Schengen idea, but it also says it understands why individual countries are tempted to suspend Schengen.

In December 2015, before the Visegrad Group summit , the Polish Secretary of State for European Affairs, Konrad Szyma?ski, said that “We (the Polish government) don’t understand why someone would want to bring together two unrelated issues – the future of the Schengen area and the immigration regulations”.

At the Visegrad summit, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia rejected the idea of “mini-Schengen” floated by the Dutch. Instead, the leaders of the four countries believe that efforts should concentrate on strengthening the EU’s external borders.

Szyma?ski has also argued that Schengen will work only if member states’ governments and their citizens believe that the external borders are really secure. According to Szyma?ski, currently, they are not convinced, and that is why European society supports the decisions to suspend Schengen rules.

The opposition has a different view on this issue. Grzegorz Schetyna, the former foreign minister, who is one of the leaders of the oppositional Civic Platform party, and the chairman of the Polish parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, stressed that free movement across the borders is at the very foundation of the European Union. 

Czech Republic: Let’s fence Greece out of Europe

The Czech government does not support the idea of a mini-Schengen. On 19 January, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told journalists that there should be a “back-up border system” established at the Greek border with Bulgaria and Macedonia, if the EU does not manage to strengthen the external border control. According to the State Secretary for European Affairs, Tomáš Prouza, this is one of possible options to save Schengen. 

“We need to strengthen external Schengen border control, establish common European border and coast guard,” he said. “And if nothing helps, we have to create a “back-up border system” at the line Bulgaria-Macedonia, arrange technical measures, so that we are able to control migration in that area, if we are not able to control it in Turkey or in Greece,” he added.

According to Radko Hokovský, an analyst at the European Values think tank, this would practically mean fencing Greece out of Europe.

“It would be the most controversial measure taken so far during the migration crisis and would have dramatic consequences for the country.” However, if other countries provided Greece with significant humanitarian aid, it could be able to cope with the situation. But it is not a long-term solution, he said, as the migration routes would shift to other countries like Italy and Bulgaria (via the Black Sea).

Slovakia: Pointless, dangerous

The Slovak government flatly rejects any considerations to “further restrict Schengen or make it valid only for certain countries,” though they say they understand the decision of some member states to temporarily reintroduce border checks.

Amini-Schengen is, however, not the right solution for limiting the migration flows. “Such proposal would only constrain the legitimate passengers, while migrants would continue to cross the border as usual (uncontrollably and illegally),” the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peter Stano, told EURACTIV Slovakia.

According to the Slovak officials, the answer lies in effective management of the Schengen borders and compliance with the EU rules. “The external borders concern all of us and we are ready to actively participate in their protection.  That is why we pushed for faster adoption of the proposal concerning the European border and coast guard,” emphasized Stano.

Slovakia’s interior ministry recently labelled the “mini-Schengen” proposal as “pointless” and “dangerous”, as it could lead to the annulment of one of the fundamental rights of the EU. “Slovakia is an integral part of the Schengen area and one of the few counties, which still adheres to the Schengen rules,” the ministry stressed in a press release highlighting that the Slovak part of the Schengen external border is “one of the best guarded in the EU”.

Romania: It won’t work

This idea has struck a sensible cord in Romania, as the country has struggled in recent years to gain entrance to the Schengen area. However, the most recent developments have changed the public emphasis from corruption problems to the migration crisis and border control.

In an interview with EURACTIV Romania, Ciprian Ciucu, a member of the of the Romanian Centre for European Policies, explained that the idea of a mini-Schengen “will further increase the Old Europe/New Europe gap”. The head of the Romanian think tank noted that “there are already different integration speeds regarding Schengen; Romania and Bulgaria being kept out for various reasons, including migration”.

Ciucu explained that “it is hard to believe that a mini-Schengen will work”.

“As the destination countries will remain destinations for the migrants, the larger Schengen countries will have no incentive to implement anti-migration policies as long as their own citizens will not benefit from total freedom of movement,” he said.

In addition, he added that “they will be interested to implement self-interested solutions, facilitating the access of the migrants to their destinations”.

Ciucu also invoked the lack of experience in border management of the so called ‘mini-Schengen’ countries. In his view, “the solution can only be found in cooperation and common resources and responsibilities (increased powers to the EU Commission and FRONTEX) for increased capacities for EU external border control”.

Romania’s Prime Minister, Dacian Ciolo? said on 21 January that his country still wanted to join Schengen, despite it having an uncertain future.

>>Read: Romania still wants to join shaky Schengen

Bulgaria: We’re better than Schengen

Like Romania, Bulgaria is not yet a Schengen member, although the Commission says both countries qualify for membership. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who has high hopes for Schengen accession, frequently says that it’s Bulgaria who best guards the EU’s southern border. 

On a visit to Bulgaria on 21 January, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, said that Bulgaria had done more to guard the borders of the EU than many of the Schengen members.

Earlier, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán said that Bulgaria’s performance in guarding its borders should be rewarded with Schengen membership. Both Hungary and Bulgaria have erected razor wire fences at large sections of their borders. 

Orbán also said on 22 January that Bulgaria and Macedonia should erect a fence along their border with Greece. So far, Bulgaria has a fence at its border with Turkey.

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