An Austrian police officer checks an ID and a passport at a border station to prevent human trafficking. EPA-EFE/CHRISTIAN BRUNA


Schengen still not functioning despite end of Covid


Europe’s border-control-free zone, Schengen, collapsed during the Covid pandemic as national governments retrenched within more comfortable confines in the belief that borders would somehow keep the virus out.

Even borders that had been porous for more than a century – such as the one between Belgium and the Netherlands – were closed, in Belgium’s case by the dwellers of small border towns who spontaneously blocked crossings with shipping containers.

So severe was the border clampdown that Europe’s single market in places (such as northern Italy) started to grind to a halt; truck drivers struggled to complete international journeys.

As alarm levels came down and thanks to a system of “green lanes” for freight set up by the European Commission, goods began to flow freely again, but the same cannot be said for people.

Austria announced this week that it plans to maintain border controls with Hungary and Slovenia for another six months when they expire in May. Suspending Schengen is only legally possible as a “last resort”, though national governments are good at coming up with justifications.  Austria’s is that it needs to “prevent asylum abuse“. Border controls have reportedly helped bring down asylum applications from 12,000 a month to 2,600.

Sweden is also currently outside the Schengen zone. Stockholm’s justification was the Ukraine war; without border controls, there was likely to be increased weapon- and people-smuggling, police had warned. This is just the latest Swedish excuse. When Schengen was suspended by Stockholm back in 2015, the migration crisis was the reason.

Schengen is in reality suspended at multiple points. Denmark has reintroduced controls at ferry ports on “public order and internal security” grounds i.e. fear of terrorists. Norway and Iceland (in Schengen but not the EU) regularly reintroduce border controls.

The European Commission, backed by a European Court of Justice ruling, said last year that it was asking six countries to end what the bureaucracy considers to be unjustifiable controls.

Asked this week if the Commission would take Austria to the Luxembourg court, a spokesperson responded: “Border controls must remain exceptional, strictly limited in time and a measure of last resort”.

The Brussels approach has been softly-softly until now, probably because immigration and security are such sensitive subjects, particularly in Austria.

Some of the concerns of member states would be assuaged if the external Schengen border was watertight. The Commission recognised this in its Schengen state-of-play report last year. The report identified other problems. There is “generally no adequate strategic governance and planning of national capabilities for integrated border management”, the Commission wrote.

While progress on the external border was said to have been made, there were reported to be “recurrent shortcomings in external border surveillance and deficient border check procedures at some border crossing points”.

Schengen is intricately linked to EU visa policy, and here too there have been recurrent problems in addition to Covid (which reduced visa applications from 16 million before the pandemic to 2.5 million in 2021). There is some coordination between Schengen members, but national governments have not given up the right to decide who gets to enter their territory, which means there are still in effect differing visa regimes in operation.

Talk of visas often leads on to discussion of the return of “irregular” or illegal immigrants, another sensitive policy that has eluded EU-wide agreement until now.

With Schengen in a bit of a mess and pressure on its external border increasing, it’s probably a good idea to carry your passport if travelling anywhere in Europe.