EU Affairs

Restart Schengen – 35 Years of Freedom in Europe

Time and again, the Schengen Agreement comes under pressure from daily political events. Reason enough to consider the value of the agreement? There are at least three good reasons to revitalise the spirit of Schengen and to campaign for the maintenance of the four freedoms of goods, services, labour and capital.

“Every citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.” – what today constitutes the charter of fundamental rights of the EU began 35 years ago as a small-scale agreement: When the five founding states of the EU – Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – signed the Schengen Agreement on 14 June 1985, they probably did not yet foresee the far-reaching consequences this gradual abolition of border controls would have for the further course of the European integration process. The common Schengen area is “an expression of lived freedom and freedom of movement and one of the greatest achievements” in the history of Europe, according to Stephan Thomae, deputy chairman of the FDP parliamentary group in the German Bundestag.

Time and again, the Schengen Agreement comes under pressure from daily political events: For instance, during the migration and refugee crisis in 2014 and 2015 as well as during the current Corona crisis. The retreat to national borders and reflexes shows how fragile our, so laboriously created, common space of freedoms is. Reason enough to consider the value of the agreement. There are at least three good reasons to revitalise the spirit of Schengen and to campaign for the maintenance of the four freedoms of goods, services, labour and capital:

The Guarantor for European Cohesion

What began as a bilateral elite project between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand now comprises a confederation of 26 members within which people, goods, services and capital can move freely. The Schengen area initially followed primarily economic considerations in order to create the common internal market. Today, however, we know that Schengen has achieved much more: it has allowed Europe to grow together in everyday life and has contributed decisively to the development of a European identity. Especially in the cross-border regions of Europe, exchange and cooperation formats have become so intensive that European transnationality is now a living reality. For many people, borders have become nothing more than just an abstract entity: they study in Spain, work in Germany, live in Poland, have their life partner in another country and simply go shopping “next door”. Consequently, especially on the German-French border, numerous local politicians and cross-border commuters have protested in recent weeks against the closure of the border, as lovers could no longer see each other and twin towns such as Mengen and Boulay, which celebrated 50 years of town twinning in 2017, were separated by fences.

The Economic Success Story

By eliminating customs and border controls, the EU has created a common internal market by, for example, generating enormous additional value through time savings and lower transport costs. The Schengen area has thus become a model of success that has gradually expanded and to which today, in addition to most EU states except Ireland and the Schengen accession candidates, other non-EU countries, namely Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway, also belong. So it is not only possible, but a matter of course, to buy products from different Schengen countries in a German supermarket. Germany is the most important trading partner for 16 EU countries and exports almost 60% of its goods to other EU countries. Even if the economic gains for the Schengen states are no longer in question, further steps are needed to complete the internal market and thus upgrade the Schengen area. According to estimates by the EU Commission, the removal of further barriers could generate around 700 billion euros in growth. The year 2020 will also set the tone for further shaping the digital internal market, one of the growth drivers of the future. In this regard, the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union can also provide important impetus in conjunction with the initiatives of the EU Commission.

Often Forgotten: The Security Community

With the abolition of internal borders, it quickly became clear that the EU had to ensure that it could react to internal and external threats. Without Schengen, the “area of freedom, security and justice” which was created by the Treaty of Amsterdam would be unthinkable. This led to more cooperation in judicial and police cooperation as well as in asylum and migration policy. However, as the migration crisis of 2015 showed, an intact Schengen area can only function if the member states guarantee effective external border protection and show solidarity with the main host states at Europe’s borders. More Europe is also needed in the fight against internal European threats, as the shocking terrorist attacks of recent years and the weaknesses in coordination between European criminal authorities that have emerged as a result have made all too clear. These incidents show once again how vulnerable our cherished freedoms are, but also that only a united EU can defy future challenges.

Jeanette Süß

European Affairs Manager, FNF Europe