When Emergency Measures Become the Norm: Post-Coronavirus Prospects for the Schengen Zone
COVID-19 presents the biggest challenge yet to the Schengen system. As the coronavirus struck Europe hard beginning in March, at least 17 Member States closed their borders, prohibiting most travel from neighboring countries. The effects were immediately apparent. Trucks transporting food and medical supplies became stuck in traffic jams stretching for kilometers as they waited to cross previously open borders. Traveling EU citizens became stranded as checkpoints sprouted on major highways and airlines stopped service. Governments in the Baltics had to charter airlines and ferries to evacuate their citizens from Germany as Poland shut its borders.
While internal borders in the Schengen zone have largely reopened in time for summer holidays, there is a lingering sense that they could snap shut anew, especially as COVID-19 cases begin to rise again in many countries. In late July, Norway instituted a mandatory quarantine for anyone traveling back from Spain, adding it to the list of countries including Croatia, Romania, and Portugal; Germany is likely to institute mandatory testing for air travelers returning from high-risk countries, including some in the Schengen area. Meanwhile, recent polls conducted for the European Council on Foreign Relations and others have found that although publics continue to endorse a coordinated EU response to the pandemic support has risen for stronger border controls.
Bringing Borders Back
Scenes of backed-up borders and checkpoints would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Yet today, the unilateral reintroduction of border checks and border closures has become an accepted part of Member States’ toolkits to respond to cross-border emergencies. When faced with a crisis—whether large-scale migration or an infectious disease—Member States have turned to rapid border closures, coordinated with their closest national partners rather than at the EU level. While the European Union did, eventually, step in to coordinate the situation at both the internal and external borders, recommending common standards for reopening internal borders and restricting travel from third countries, coordination came only after Member States had acted instinctively to swiftly, and unilaterally, close their borders.
Moreover, the effects of the latest round of border controls have done little to dissuade some governments of the utility of borders. As countries put in place more extensive border closures throughout March, asylum claims fell precipitously—both at Europe’s external border and for countries on inland migration routes. European Asylum Support Office (EASO) data show that overall asylum applications in the European Union in March were just 13 percent of the numbers seen in January and February, and marked the lowest level since 2014. For countries further away from the external borders, the drop was even more pronounced as internal border closures limited secondary movements. Denmark, for example, averaged just one asylum claim per day during April. This drop has not gone unnoticed by European governments, particularly those that have long complained about persistent secondary movement of asylum seekers within the border-free zone.
There is thus a risk that the instinct to return to national borders at times of crisis may only grow stronger, particularly as second or third waves of the virus necessitate the reintroduction of some level of travel restrictions.
At the Heart of the Matter: A Deficit of Trust
The reflexive reintroduction of border controls belies an inherent lack of trust between EU Member States on key policy domains—from the management of migration flows to safeguarding public health and preventing terrorism. This is problematic because the Schengen system relies on countries trusting one another to do their share—whether by providing a fair hearing for asylum seekers or preventing the flow of illicit goods or bad actors across external borders. Managing an infectious disease requires a similar kind of trust: trust that others will build testing capacity, report data accurately, and make sensible choices about when and how to open up.
Yet in 2020, as during the peak of the migration and refugee crisis in 2015, trust has proven to be a scarce commodity. Member States have repeatedly reverted to closing borders or introducing controls with Member States they do not trust to do due diligence, while maintaining an open channel of coordination for others with whom they have close ties through trade or proximity. Regions with longstanding traditions of cooperation have tended to cluster together to maintain some level of openness. While Germany rapidly closed its borders with many of its neighbors in March, including Austria with which its relations have been strained due to disputes over migration flows, the Dutch-German border has been kept open throughout the pandemic, a result of the close ties between the two countries as well as largely successful appeals to local residents to refrain from nonessential cross-border trips. Initial moves to reopen borders also occurred along regional lines. The Baltic travel bubble, for example, was the first to emerge within the Schengen zone, with all three governments lifting internal border restrictions for each other’s nationals as of mid-May.
Creating Conditions for Trust
If left unchecked, the future scenario for the Schengen zone may well be a continued pendulum swing between two forces: knee-jerk, unilateral border closures in response to threats, and a return to an EU-led coordination effort once the threat subsides. Each swing to the extreme further erodes the foundation of the Schengen system and the commitment of members to upholding their collective commitments to the principle of free movement. As Europe begins to reopen, addressing this risk will need to be a key agenda item. Doing so requires taking concrete steps to generate trust between Member States. Lessons can be harvested from the subregional pockets of cooperation observed during the 2015-16 migration crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. With little time to waste, it may be more effective, and expedient, to turn to alternative tools, such as information sharing or real-time monitoring of Member State capacity, to foster a basic sense of trust, rather than relying on legal reforms. These tools include:
- Improving the reliability and rapidity of data- and information sharing. Better information about how each Member State is managing crisis-related issues can help to alleviate doubts and flag problem areas before they are out of control. In the context of migration management, the EURODAC system provides an easy way for Member States to quickly exchange information on asylum applicants and unauthorized border crossers, and check that EU rules determining responsibility for an asylum claim are being applied correctly. Periodic evaluations of a Member State’s application of the Schengen rules provides a public report card and can flag potential issues. In the realm of public health, situation monitoring from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control as well as efforts to implement contact-tracing apps that interact across borders may play a similar role.
- Easing cross-national cooperation by setting up coordination structures at the operational level. Regular exchanges and direct lines of communication between the staff in Member States’ Dublin Units, for example, reportedly made it easier to trust each other’s determinations regarding which Member State is responsible for an asylum claim and to implement Dublin transfers. Along similar lines, Belgium, the Netherlands, and North Rhine-Westphalia set up a Cross-Border Task Force Corona in March to monitor the public-health situation and cross-border traffic in the region and coordinate a regional response.
- Mobilizing technological innovations to monitor or resolve tensions. When a clear need for border controls exists, there may be creative ways to continue to facilitate a level of cross-border mobility and avoid shutting down completely. Following a European Commission recommendation from mid-March, many Member States dedicated so-called green lanes for trucks carrying goods within the Schengen area to prevent or diminish delivery delays. And at the Germany-Luxembourg border, authorities created a windshield badge that cross-border commuters can display to speed their passage through border controls. To facilitate migration management, countries such as the Netherlands have turned to cameras and remote-sensing technology to flag risks at borders while allowing most traffic to continue normally.
- Investing in infrastructure. EU investments to support the building up of Member States’ asylum, border management, and return systems have played a key role in addressing trust issues in the context of migration management, either with money channeled through the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) or operational support provided by EASO and Frontex. EU efforts to support Member State testing capacity or contact tracing through funding under the Emergency Support Instrument or by facilitating cross-country learning can play a similar role during the pandemic.
- Improving joint management of external borders. Finally, one of the central pillars of Schengen is the effective management of the European Union’s external borders. In the context of migration management and asylum, this has been a particularly troublesome issue. Various solutions have been deployed and suggested, from using EASO and Frontex to support national authorities, to creating a full EU border asylum procedure. For managing public health, the effective implementation of a common visa policy, including which countries to allow in, and vetting procedures, such as predeparture testing or quarantine, will be essential. Slipups, such as a recent flight from Bangladesh to Italy where 37 passengers tested positive for COVID-19, will critically hamper efforts to rebuild trust.
The importance of building trust—and how to do so—is a key lesson from the migration crisis five years ago. Applying these lessons thus does not require starting from scratch. Rather, the pandemic has shown the urgency of investing in measures to build a baseline of trust and thus inoculate the Schengen area from future crises.