The European Commission presented on Wednesday a new strategy to make the largest free travel area in the world – the Schengen area – stronger and more resilient.
The Schengen area, without controls at EU’s internal borders, is home to more than 420 million people across 26 countries. According to Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, the removal of internal border controls between Schengen States is an integral part of the European way of life and a symbol of what the EU stands for.
Almost 1.7 million people reside in one Schengen State and work in another. People have built their lives around the freedoms offered by the Schengen area, with 3.5 million people crossing between Schengen States every day.
“Unfettered movement within the Schengen area is essential to our European way of life,” he said at a press conference presenting the strategy (2 June), recollecting the time when he as teenager was body searched at a Greek airport. “Schengen is a well-oiled machine but like any machine, to stand the test of time, its foundations need to be constantly shored up and strengthened.
“Of course, Schengen is not complete without all our member states,” he added and referred to Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania, that have not yet joined the Schengen area. It also includes four non-EU countries: Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
“A more inclusive Schengen will be a stronger and more secure Schengen.” He was optimistic that the European Council will accept remaining EU countries in the Schengen area.
The Schengen area is not only about removing border controls but also about the EU economy but it suffered two severe blows in recent years, first from the migration crisis in 2016 and recently from the outbreak of COVID-19 and the coronavirus crisis.
Schinas admitted that member states need to better coordinate between themselves and with the Commission the temporary internal border controls that were imposed by them during the crises. Such border controls need to be limited in time. Backtracking on restoring open internal borders will lead to the fragmentation of the EU.
The proposed reform of the Schengen area will build on three pillars, effective management of the EU’s external borders, strengthening internal measures to compensate for the absence of internal border controls, in particular on police cooperation, security and migration management, and ensuring robust preparedness and governance, including the completion of Schengen.
Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs, said, that “State-of-the-art IT systems will improve external border management while enhanced police cooperation and common migration management will help reinforce the Schengen area without border checks.
The management of the EU external borders will be strengthened through the ongoing roll out of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and making information systems for border and migration management interoperable by 2023. To complement the reform, the Commission is also calling on the European Parliament and Council to adopt the New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposal on screening of people crossing without authorisation.
Internally, new initiatives will include an EU Police Cooperation Code; the upgrade of the existing framework for exchanging information on DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration; and expanding the use of advance passenger information to intra-Schengen flights.
To foster common trust in the implementation of the Schengen rules and make sure any deficiencies are identified and remedied quickly, the Commission is also proposing to revise the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism. Changes include accelerating the evaluation process as well as a fast-track procedure in case of significant deficiencies that could put Schengen as a whole at risk.
Asked about whether the so-called golden passports were a threat against the integrity of the Schengen system, Johansson replied that the issue was not directly addressed in the strategy as it falls under the competency of other Commissioners. The passportsare offered by some member states in return for payments and investments.
The schemes are monitored by the Commission which already has launched infringement procedures against Cyprus and Malta. A Commission source told The Brussels Times that they raise inherent risks, in particular as regards security, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption for the member state concerned and for the Union as a whole.
When a member state awards nationality, the person concerned automatically becomes an EU citizen and enjoys all rights linked to this status, such as the right to move, reside and work freely within the EU. “The granting of EU citizenship for pre-determined payments or investments without any genuine link with the member states concerned undermines the essence of EU citizenship.”