Schengen's 'black swan' moment?

Schengen's 'black swan' moment?

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
19 December 2011

Europe's leaders are - understandably - focused on the euro crisis, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. But policy-makers should beware another calamity in 2012: a possible breakdown of the EU's Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Undoubtedly, these two troubled flagships of European integration share parallels. For a start the same country, Greece, is central to the fate of both. And Schengen and the eurozone are each vulnerable to systemic shocks which, left unchecked, are condemned to re-occur with increased severity time and again.

Last April, the Schengen area was propelled into the media spotlight when France erected border checkpoints with Italy in a row over the transit of Tunisian migrants. Despite the shrillness of Italian rhetoric, the numbers involved were - and remain - manageable: tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands. But the resulting flare-up between Sarkozy and Berlusconi prompted EU leaders to agree that the Schengen rulebook or 'border code' should be revised so that checkpoints can be re-introduced more easily in future. This vague pronouncement, made after an EU summit in June, has quickly descended into a squabble over 'legal bases': diplomatic code for how much power the European Commission should have over national border controls in any new arrangement.

But the EU's warring officials seem blind to several developments that may amount to a seismic shock or 'black swan' event for the Schengen area in 2012. The first is Greece's continued failure to control its frontier with Turkey, currently the source of most illegal entries to the passport-free zone. When Greece joined Schengen in 2000, other members believed that it was far from ready to replace properly the border control functions once undertaken by its military. (The army is banned from maintaining border checkpoints under Schengen rules.) Now Athens has more undocumented residents than Greek citizens, according to one senior EU official working closely with the administration there. And the number of illegal migrants that enter Greece each year in order to reach other Schengen countries has rocketed into the hundreds of thousands in recent years.

The second development is that Greece's neighbours, Bulgaria and Romania, look set to join the passport-free zone soon. Despite vetoes from the Finnish and Dutch interior ministries, EU leaders seem likely to push ahead with Bulgarian and Romanian to the Schengen area in 2012. Greece is the only continental Schengen country not joined by land to any other member. Illegal entrants to the country must therefore travel to ports like Patras in the hope of securing a passage to Italy or else brave the security checks at one of 15 international airports. Border officials elsewhere in the Schengen area often require passports from air passengers travelling arriving from Greece. But the imminent dismantling of land border checkpoints with Bulgaria and Romania will take away the one safety valve that has enabled other Schengen members to contain the Greek 'threat' over the last decade.

Tensions within the Schengen area will therefore escalate significantly as land routes to Western Europe from Greece suddenly become available. The numbers of illegal entrants at the Turkish border are likely to rise sharply in response. On top of this, Bulgaria's own frontier with Turkey and Romania's port of Constanta will become magnets for the organised gangs of smugglers who make millions secreting migrants across the Greek-Turkish border. For their membership of Schengen to work, fellow members need to be able to count on the incorruptibility of Bulgaria and Romania's border services. Yet both are adamant that the palpable problems with corruption and the rule of law in their countries are irrelevant to their membership of the passport-free zone.

Lastly, this series of events is likely to unfold between March and September next year, the same period in which so-called 'boat people' from North Africa avail of warmer weather to try to reach the shores of Spain, Italy and Malta. In other words: public anxieties over immigration are already likely to be high, especially given the political instability that has accompanied the Arab Spring. Italians already believe that immigrants make up a quarter of their population, according to a recent survey. Such anxiety, combined with new concerns over Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, could well lead to the Schengen area becoming a political football in national elections in Italy or in the French presidential election campaign in April or May 2012. After all, contenders in both, Umberto Bossi from the Lega Nord and Marine Le Pen from the Front National, are against the very concept of Schengen.

EU governments can - if they act now - stave off a future collapse in confidence in the Schengen system. First off, they must buy themselves more time to fix the current problems. Bulgaria and Romania must be denied entry for another year or at least restricted to passport-free air and sea travel only. While the two countries may be bitterly disappointed at this, what is the point in joining a passport-free zone only to see it disintegrate soon afterwards? In this interim, the Schengen border code then needs to be amended to allow for corruption spot-checks from Brussels and national capitals - and to allow for the suspension of members who cannot or will not control their borders.

Simultaneously, there must be significant EU investment in a new border and immigration system for Greece. The Greek public administration may be culpable in many areas, such as in the management of asylum claims. But it can hardly be expected to reform on its own in the midst of an almighty recession and swingeing cuts to public finances. Furthermore, member-states should make ready a large task-force of border guards to be seconded to Greece for a period of 18 months to two years. A similar multi-national force served at the Greek border for a period after the country first joined in 2000.

Finally, what the Schengen area needs most of all is a treaty with Turkey on migration and security issues to secure its border in the medium term. With Denmark set to take over the presidency of the EU's Justice and Home Affairs Council, governments should offer Turkey a serious roadmap towards visa liberalisation in return for its help in controlling illegal immigration at the Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian frontiers. Turkey's national police and its fledgling border patrol agency should be offered honorary membership of their EU counterpart bodies - Europol and Frontex respectively - in return for their cooperation against smugglers and other forms of organised crime operating in the Aegean and Black Sea regions.

Imagine EU governments were given a sneak preview of the mess of today's eurozone two years ago. They would then have had the necessary perspective to take whatever action was necessary to contain the crisis and prevent its escalation into something much worse. Similarly, governments need to realise now that events in 2012 have the potential to explode the fragile confidence that – as if by magic – holds the Schengen area together. They must snuff out the fuse while there is still time.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. He thinks about the future of Europe including issues affecting European internal security, human rights and the free movement of people.