Life After Schengen

LONDON – Throughout Europe’s refugee crisis, which has been building for well over two years, warnings about the threat to the European Union’s precious Schengen Area of border-free travel have proliferated. Indeed, the warning was heard again recently, as EU ministers thrashed out a late-night agreement on border policing and the relocation of refugees. But, at a time of diminished confidence in the EU, would eliminating border-free travel be such a bad thing?

In short, no. Of course, the idea of abolishing borders within Europe holds great symbolic importance and appeal. But sometimes even sacred cows need to be slaughtered. With the refugee crisis turning Schengen into a threat to the credibility of the EU as a collective entity and of its national governments’ ability to maintain order and the rule of law, that time is now.

When it was first created in 1985, the Schengen Area included just five countries (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany). Membership has since ballooned to include 22 of the EU’s 28 member countries – with four of those left out (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania) due to join in the future – plus four non-EU members (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). All have abolished controls at their shared borders and have adopted a common visa policy for citizens of non-member states.

It is certainly handy to be able to treat a flight from Zurich to Oslo as a domestic journey, with no passport controls to contend with upon departure and arrival. And it is undoubtedly convenient to be able to drive from Berlin to Barcelona without having to wait in line at each border one crosses. Indeed, that convenience is probably why only two EU countries (Ireland and the United Kingdom) have opted out of the Schengen Agreement.