BORDER CHECKS within the Schengen area are meant to be a thing of the past. For a generation, passport-free travel was the norm across much of Europe (22 of the 28 members of the European Union belong to Schengen, along with four non-EU states). Border controls were rarely used and, when they were, they lasted only the length of a political summit or a football tournament. But since the refugee crisis of 2015, “temporary” border controls have become more or less permanent in six European countries. Existing checks are now likely to be extended for another six months, after co-ordinated announcements this month from France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
The French authorities cite terrorism, after two fatal attacks in 2018. Others explain their decision on the basis that too many people are still entering, living in or moving round Europe illegally. Between January and August 2018, 7,467 illegal entries into Germany were detected at the Austrian border alone. Of those, 3,818 were turned away; the rest followed asylum procedures. In light of this, the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said that in his country “the requirements for lifting the internal controls are currently not met.”
However, some disagree. “There are no objective justifications for internal border controls,” says Marie De Somer, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank in Brussels. Migrant flows on all routes have decreased by 95% since the crisis, and the number of secondary movements (when migrants move on from where they originally entered the EU) has gone down, too. But for Germany and its neighbour, Austria, the figures remain too high.
Extending the controls comes at a price. The European Parliament estimates that reintroducing border controls in the Schengen area could cost up to €20bn in one-off expenses and €2bn in annual operating expenses. There are also knock-on effects, as ID checks delay commuters, tourists and truckers. The European Parliament, possibly exaggerating a little, has criticised the controls for having “crippling effects on the economies of the member states”. More concretely, a spokesman for the Slovenian government explains that, as a small country, Slovenia’s business was hurt by the uncertainty that internal border controls create. “We are closing countries in, but we need to trade,” she insists. The introduction of temporary border controls, she reckons, was understandable in the case of France, but is less so when it comes to the decision of Austria to limit movement on the border the two countries share. Given that the number of migrants has fallen, “it’s an abuse of a system which is one of the cornerstones of the EU.” In 2018 so far, just 14 people have been returned across the border from Austria into Slovenia.
Trucking firms suffer most. According to Marco Digioia of the European Road Haulers Association, recent ID checks on three main roads in Belgium led to costly queues. More than 70% of goods in Europe are transported by road. Since drivers are paid by the hour and manufacturers depend on just-in-time supplies, the costs of delays quickly mount up. The French government has promised to smooth border crossings, and the European Commission has said it will push for police checks to take place in border areas, rather than at the border itself, to reduce tailbacks.
European and national leaders profess a common goal: a safe and secure Europe, where people can once again move freely within the Schengen area. They say that internal borders can be fully reopened only when the EU’s external border is stronger. But even with plans afoot to give extra force to Frontex, the EU’s external border force, one Austrian official reckons that their assessment is not likely to change much in the medium term.
In the view of Ms de Somer, the decision to extend controls despite declining arrivals shows that leaders are guided by “a political rather than a policy rationale”. The leaders of France and Germany are under pressure to look tough, and the Austrian coalition government includes the nationalist Freedom Party. “Leaders need this situation for their migration rhetoric,” says the Slovenian official. In the meantime, the costs are rising.