Several weeks ago, at a border security conference in London, I thought I was going to see something akin to the recent Ukrainian parliament brawl. A British MP and a Migration Watch representative separately declared the Schengen Agreement to be ‘dead’, which on both occasions was met with passionate jeers and cheers from the audience.
Speakers from the European Union later argued in response that the Schengen Agreement is alive, sick or immortal. Passionate discussions concerning the Schengen Agreement’s future continued across the two-day program.
Freedom of movement was a central tenant of both the Treaty of Rome and the European Economic Community that it formed. But neither instrument provided a sufficiently strong enough argument to compel all European Community members to abolish their border control measures with other members.
It was the failure of the European Economic Community to negotiate open borders between member states in the early 80s that led the initial five nations to sign the Schengen Agreement on 14 June 1985.
At 30, the Schengen Agreement is neither young nor old. Despite current criticism, it hasn’t been without economic successes. It has survived a number of crises, including the fall of eastern European communism.
A number of vocal UK commentators have recently criticised the Schengen Agreement’s performance in the face of this year’s irregular migration crisis. Since January 2015, there have been an unprecedented 1.2 million illegal border crossings into the Schengen Area: and unfortunately well over 3,700 drowning deaths associated with the Syrian crisis.
UK Border Force operations in Calais provide visible evidence of the British government’s dissatisfaction with the Schengen Area’s border controls. One could be forgiven for characterising those operations as being akin to the construction of ‘fortress UK’.
Much of the current criticism of the Schengen Area and Agreement is related to their perceived failures in stemming irregular migration flows and the uneven application of external Schengen border controls in Italy and Greece. From a non-European observer’s perspective, it appears that arguments about the Schengen’s Agreement’s future are close to boiling point.
But such criticisms are predicated on assumptions that the flow of refugees could have actually been stopped. I’m not convinced that’s the case.
The Schengen Agreement has provisions within its framework to prevent states from introducing customs and tax measures as quasi visa controls. But the agreement doesn’t prohibit states from reinstating border controls to meet extraordinary national threats for short periods. That has occurred on at least four occasions in different member states prior to the 2015 irregular migration crisis.
In 2010 Malta introduced temporary checks for a papal visit. In 2011, France closed its border to trains carrying Tunisian refugees. That same year, Denmark tightened borders in response to illegal immigration and organised crime. And Estonia introduced temporary checks due to a 2014 US presidential visit.
As such, border closures by France, Belgium, Hungary and Slovenia in response to the 2015 irregular migration crisis and recent terror attacks aren’t unprecedented. And as such, they don’t, on their own, spell the end of Schengen Agreement.
The spirit of the Schengen Agreement is immortal, if for no other reason than the economics of the alternatives. The private and public sectors across the Schengen Area are now reliant on the cost and time savings provided by open internal borders. And during a time of austerity the permanent reinstatement of border functions doesn’t appear affordable for many member states.
For those reasons, I believe that the Schengen Agreement will survive this current crisis: albeit possibly a little smaller should Greece and Italy be expelled. And I suspect that Turkey’s admission to Schengen Agreement will be delayed further as the member states become more risk adverse.
The experiences of the Schengen Area in 2015 have real implications for ASEAN leaders considering an integrated community with labour mobility.
In its time as chair, Malaysia has championed an integrated ASEAN community where goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour flow freely across physical borders.
ASEAN’s pursuit of consensus may be the factor that contributes to the future proofing of this integrated community. In contrast with the ‘all-in’ Schengen Agreement model, the ASEAN approach will be cautious and focused on consensus. That approach will allow integration to be evolutionary in nature, and reversible if necessary: sovereignty will always reign supreme.
ASEAN’s approach to free flowing skilled labour illustrates that cautious approach. To date, much of ASEAN’s efforts towards the creation of free flowing skilled labour has been focused on the accreditation of mutual recognition arrangements for professions. Actual movement of skilled labour will be strictly controlled by individual member states. In parallel, ASEAN member states are developing policy arrangements to protect domestic labour forces.
Over the next 10 years, ASEAN’s member states are likely to derive significant benefits from their proposed economic and labour force integration. The diverse levels of economic development in ASEAN’s member states make integration a much more difficult prospect than that experienced in the Schengen area.
The Schengen Agreement’s current trials should however illustrate to ASEAN member states that future border arrangements must be robust enough to deal with extraordinary challenges, if they are to stand the test of time.
ASEAN’s member states should consider and balance both the economic and security dimensions of any future border arrangements. And they should maintain the frameworks and capacity to implement extraordinary border controls for short periods of time in the face of future risks and threats.
The Schengen Agreements recent experiences also illustrates that many of the integration decisions that are now being considered may be unable to be reversed. In this context, ASEAN’s cautious approach may prevent it from sleepwalking into problems further down the track.