Migration and the coronavirus pandemic: Crash tests for Schengen

"The Schengen area is a great asset. We should do everything in our power to preserve it and, especially in the fight against epidemics, make use of the internal market, which will only reach its full potential through Schengen," says Christian Moos, Secretary General of the Europa-Union Germany. [EPA-EFE | Dumitru Doru]

On 26 March 1995, the Schengen area was created and border controls between Germany, France, the Benelux countries, Spain and Portugal were abolished. This achievement had its first serious test with the refugee crisis in 2015 and is facing an even more serious challenge in the current coronavirus pandemic, said Christian Moos of Europa-Union Germany.

Europa-Union Deutschland, a section of the Union of European Federalists, is the largest non-partisan and locally organised citizens’ initiative for Europe. With over 17,000 members and more than 200 district associations, it has been working for European unification since 1946. Like its youth organisation, the Young European Federalists (JEF), the Europa-Union is networked with partner associations throughout Europe.

Christian Moos, the secretary-general of Europa-Union Germany, spoke with Claire Stam, Editor-in-Chief of EURACTIV Germany.

Is the new division of the Schengen area a temporary symptom or a permanent return of individual crisis management?

If I am to take a positive view of this, I would say that the borders closed at different points in time are a characteristic feature of the federal order as we have it to some extent in Europe and fully developed in Germany. Many decisions are initially taken on a decentralised basis and sometimes lead to contradictions. One of the strengths of any federal system, however, is that many think along with others and can learn quickly from each other. The measures are therefore similar. This can be observed these days at both national and European level and is a good thing.

Decentralised crisis management need not therefore be a bad thing. However, individual crisis management and going it alone, which is detrimental to other member states or, in Germany, to the federal states, should not be viewed positively. Unfortunately, we are also seeing that these days. After all, the Schengen Agreement wisely permits border controls as a clearly temporary measure in exceptional situations. Another question is whether the border closures will help in the fight against the corona pandemic. I have justified doubts about that. They damage European cohesion without any recognisable epidemiological benefit.

So you do not consider the border closures to be sensible?

Border closures and seizures are national go-it-alones which massively disrupt the movement of goods, even if the flow of goods should continue. They prevent commuters from going to work, although they do not pose any danger if they adhere to the generally accepted rules of social distancing. The virus has long been in the country. It cannot be stopped at the borders. The border closures inside are purely symbolic politics.

If necessary measures such as the closure of shops and restaurants were coordinated at the same time, at the European level, there would at least be no problematic migration movements at the internal borders. It is right that, in the current situation, the freedom of movement of citizens is being restricted in the context of disease control, and this applies particularly to mobility within the member states.

What exactly do you mean?

Many people from the greater Paris area have made their way to the coasts because they consider their holiday homes to be safer than the big city. Many British people from London and the south-east of the island are drawn to the Highlands. People from Lombardy risk the virus getting out of control by fleeing to the south of the Apennine Peninsula. Schleswig-Holstein has also taken measures against travellers to Germany, who are now being drawn to the islands. The controls at the internal borders of the member states are irrelevant to these problematic developments.

The Schengen area is a great asset. We should do everything we can to preserve it and, especially in the fight against epidemics. We should make use of the internal market, which will only reach its full potential through Schengen.

Do you think the member states are making sufficient use of existing European instruments? For example, there is the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), but it is not sufficiently supplied with health data by the member states.

The European Union is rightly working on a common European data space, on common cloud solutions with supercomputers, which allow the joint processing and use of enormous amounts of data in Europe. This is more important now than ever, especially with regard to non-personalised health data.

Indeed, governments should better coordinate their decisions with each other and make them evidence-based. Services such as those provided by ECDC are very helpful in this respect.

After all, the finance ministers are trying to find common answers to the disastrous economic consequences of the epidemic and financial stability in the monetary union. The measures to decelerate the waves of infection, to provide medical material and vital services of general interest, to maintain public safety and, of course, to identify already approved medicines for the production of a vaccine, all this must be coordinated at European level.

Common information pools are therefore indispensable. The research centres cooperate across borders. Rightly so. Politics should be able to do so.

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Within five years, Europe has been confronted with two crises that challenge the concept of borders as we have known them for 25 years: The arrival of many refugees in 2015 and the current spread of the coronavirus. Do you believe that this is a kind of crash test for Schengen?

Yes, that is undeniably the case. Both challenges, the flight of 2015 and the corona pandemic, put the cohesion of the EU countries to the test. But unlike in 2015, when there was no health threat and no negative economic consequences, what is currently happening is, for practically all EU states, foreseeably the biggest crisis since World War II.

2015 was marked by irrational fears. Those who are afraid today are not irrational. There will therefore have to be more solidarity at all levels.

Divided and weakened, Europe will become the plaything of other powers. Then the big sale will begin here. If the EU fails, its critics will still be looking around, because the bundling and sharing of national sovereignty through the European method will then be replaced by a new order in which national sovereignty no longer plays an effective role.

Anyone who thinks that Brussels is under foreign control today will be happy to think back on this tomorrow. But hopefully, that will not happen. Especially since a majority of people in Europe want more European cooperation, and Schengen is clearly part of that.

In both episodes, EU governments have wanted to act quickly, accurately and jointly. To what extent has this been achieved? Has the EU learned anything from the refugee crisis?

The Europa-Union Germany has been working for many years for a common asylum and migration policy. Yet despite the Commission’s best efforts, we have not made any progress since 2015.

Consensus seems to exist only on sealing off the external borders, but that is not a viable strategy in the long term. Moreover, European values and international law are being violated at the external borders and on both sides.

I personally find it shameful that the EU leaders, David-Maria Sassoli, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, have praised Greece for being ‘Europe’s shield,’ as if we were talking about the Persian Wars. The conditions in the refugee camps in Greece, but also in Idlib, Syria and elsewhere, are an affront to human dignity. If the coronavirus also rages there, we will have a terrible humanitarian disaster.

More cooperation would therefore be urgently needed. In some member states, however, the majority of the people have voted in favour of national chauvinist political forces that trample on democratic principles and the rule of law.

If these forces remain in power for much longer, Europe will continue to suffer further damage. Hungary’s government, for example, is now using the COVID-19 crisis to gain total control in the long term.

In a nutshell, this means that there are now dictatorships in the EU. Perhaps, at some point, a new value-based community will have to be founded. EU money that people like Orbán are using should not flow for too long.

Of course, we also have to look after our own backyard. What are we doing in Berlin for European cohesion? A new consensus is urgently needed, as well as stateswomen and statesmen with the necessary vision.

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EU leaders confirmed the proposed closure of the EU’s external and Schengen borders for at least 30 days on Tuesday (17 March) as the bloc continued struggling to come up with a unified response to the coronavirus outbreak.

What division of competences between the EU and its member states would be appropriate?

Before the virus, I would have answered differently. But the upheavals caused by the coronavirus will force Europeans to cooperate much more closely. Or they will break up the EU, at least their monetary union.

As Europa-Union Germany we are committed, always in the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity, to further integration steps and thus to further pooling and sharing of sovereignty.

We consider further transfers of competence in the field of foreign and security policy, the representation of states on the international stage, social policy and internal security to be necessary.

Will the pandemic lead to new EU competences?

In light of the situation, I believe that European debt instruments and reform programmes, which are agreed to on an equal footing and lead to the highest possible level of convergence of living conditions, are sensible. They are now virtually indispensable.

The ECB alone will no longer be able to secure the euro in view of the new debt caused by COVID-19. The member states are forced to act.

Germany should not hit the brakes here but should actively contribute to finding a viable way to avoid false incentives, without the word ‘austerity’ sowing discord once again or even further.

Both the fear of a new austerity policy in the south and the fear of a ‘debt or transfer union’ in northern Europe are playing into the hands of Eurosceptics and demagogues. That is why the greatest care and prudence are necessary, but at the same time a willingness to make decisions and an appropriate pace, because some euro countries will not be able to cope with a shutdown lasting months.

Are we heading for an institutional crisis on the same scale as that of 2015?

No. The crisis that’s coming is far greater unless a miracle happens. But there are also opportunities in it. Many of our demands as European federalists read like a blueprint for the answers that are now to be found. The announced conference on the future of Europe, the new multiannual financial framework and now the need to tackle the consequences of the biggest crisis since the World War, all this culminates in this year, which will be an epoch-making year for Europe. It is still up to us to find the right answers to ensure that we can continue to live in freedom and dignity in the 2020s and 2030s.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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