For nearly two decades, the Schengen border control regime has allowed free movement across 26 European countries, but recent efforts by some member states to effectively ‘renationalize’ the regime has caused some commentators to question its democratic legitimacy. Ruben Zaiotti argues that in light of these questions and the potential for the expansion of the scheme into Romania and Bulgaria, a new open discussion about the meaning of a ‘European border’ is now needed.

Last June, the European Parliament (EP), in an unprecedented move, suspended cooperation with the European Union’s other main legislative body, the European Council, following the latter’s decision to curtail the EP’s role in the supervision of Schengen, Europe’s border control regime. This blatant attempt by EU member states to effectively ‘renationalize’ the regime has resurrected long standing criticisms levelled against Schengen, such as the fact that it is a top down system lacking democratic control and input, its flexible method has damaged the EU’s institutional coherence, it over-emphasizes security over freedom, it has a negative impact on Europe’s neighbours and non EU citizens, and its expansionary drive can lead to overstretching.

By Cayambe (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0

The fact that Schengen still is an elite-driven and undemocratic enterprise has prevented an open discussion about the actual meaning of ‘European border’ from taking place. In a national context, the legitimacy of the state as main provider of security is based on the protection of citizens qua nationals. With Schengen, it should be based on shared protection, but the current arrangement lacks a genuine sense of solidarity and shared identity of the protected. This shared identity must emerge for the peoples of Europe to fully accept a common external frontier and the abolition of police controls on frontiers between them. Since the regime’s inception, Schengen’s popular support has been mainly passive, and based on practical results of the policies introduced. Its relative shallowness is reflected in the fact that popular opinion has fluctuated depending on the issue at stake and the mood of the moment. This condition seriously weakens Schengen’s legitimacy, and it could hurt the long-term success of the initiative.

If the lack of popular support has prevented Schengen from gaining greater legitimacy, its reliance on flexible methods has created political and legal fragmentation in the policy-making process. The result has been increased complexity and diminished transparency.

These issues were a source of concern before Schengen was incorporated in the EU, and they remain so today, given the undiminished appeal of ‘enhanced co-operation’ arrangements in the area of justice, security and freedom.

Even more worrying is the potentially self-destructive dynamic stemming from Schengen’s ‘internal security dilemma’. According to this logic, security is a necessary precondition for the establishment and expansion of freedom in a given community. The quest for security, however, can never be completely fulfilled, since this is an inherently subjective and unstable condition. As a result, security feeds more security, and the process can potentially go on ad infinitum. One of the side effects of this ‘hyper-securitization’ is that the policies it entails become almost exclusively repressive, since they are aimed at sealing off Europe from potential threats.

This explains why Schengen has been opposed by civil libertarian groups in current member states and it has created widespread suspicion and resistance among Europe’s neighbours. It also explain why it has been fiercely contested by critically oriented scholars and activists who consider Schengen a vehicle for the imposition of a particular gendered, raced and classed vision of reality.

The prospect of new states – even current EU members states such Romania and Bulgaria –becoming fully integrated into the Schengen space represents another serious challenge to the regime’s future viability. The quest for expansion was part of this project since the very beginnings, and this feature was maintained with its incorporation in the EU. A potential implication of this ‘bigger is better’ logic is that the system may become overstretched and eventually lose momentum and effectiveness (not to mention its function as laboratory for the EU). Arguably, the EU’s main post-enlargement challenges stem from the increased political, structural and implementation capability diversity that the new members will bring. All these differences will remain after enlargement (if it ever occurs), rendering common decision-making in border control matters more problematic.

Steps have indeed been taken, or at least discussion is ongoing, to address some of these shortcomings. So far there have been proposals to make the policy-making process in justice and home affairs more transparent. These discussions have focused on increasing transparency through better information on objectives and progress to parliaments, the media and the citizens, as well as more effective parliamentary control. Ideas to expand and render more meaningful EU citizenship are going in the direction of creating a sense of solidarity and shared identity among Europeans. The European Commission has been the most vocal in ensuring that concerns over security do not overshadow the ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ objectives of the EU, thus guaranteeing a better balance in the delivering of these public goods.

Despite these attempts, addressing Schengen’s shortcomings will be difficult. The main reason is that these elements in the Schengen experiment are, ironically, also some of its major assets. These features were instrumental in allowing the border control policy community to go beyond the nationalist commonsense. In terms of participation and democratic control, opening up the debate over Schengen would have weakened the community’s effort in pursuing it.

Flexibility was one of Schengen’s major strengths, since it allowed European policy-makers to avoid getting bogged down in legal and bureaucratic wrangles or the vetoing by individual countries, as often occurred in the EU. The emphasis on security, especially at Europe’s external borders, was aimed at soothing popular anxieties that the lifting of internal frontiers was believed to create. Limiting the rights of neighbours and non-EU citizens has become the price paid in order to expand the rights of EU citizens, and more generally a way to externalize the negative implications of the newly created area of free movement. Finally, the continuing expansion of the regime, now including the new EU members, represents a politically expedient means to solidify the regime and to guarantee its survival.

The tensions within Schengen have so far been contained, because of the political support it has among most existing members. This support, however, has been seriously tested recently (see, for example, the recent brouhaha over the right of individual member states to re-instate borders in cases of emergency ) and that might create problems in the long term, and even lead to the unthinkable, that is a Europe without Schengen.

A version of this article first appeared on the Schengenalia blog.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Ruben Zaiotti – Dalhousie University
Ruben Zaiotti joined the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University (Canada) in July 2010. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, a Master degree from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Bologna. His main areas of interest are international relations theory, international security, border control and European Union politics. He is currently working on two research projects. The first looks at the transatlantic partnership over issues of homeland security. The second examines the challenges of European Union foreign policy after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty. He also writes at Schengenalia.

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