Schengen Area in the Brink of Suspension: What Could Be the Consequences
Since the agreement on its establishment was signed 35 years ago, the Schengen Area has never been closer to being suspended.
With the sealing off of the external borders and reintroduced border checks by most of the 26 Member Countries, the novel COVID-19 has turned out to be the greatest challenge that the EU has faced regarding its “proudest achievement”, the borderless zone.
The coronavirus crisis has more than anything else ever challenged the member states with protecting the health of their citizens while attempting to safeguard the freedom of travel in the Schengen Area.
Despite that at the beginning of the outbreak, the EU tried hard not to let the Schengen Area slip off its hands, insisting that internal border checks were not necessary, and the outbreak could be contained with other measures, time showed such assumptions were wrong.
By the time the World Health Organization announced that the EU was no longer an infected area but rather an epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, several of the Schengen countries had already introduced border checks, many barring from entering citizens of most non-EU but also some EU countries.
In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus and to avoid economic difficulties in the block the EU Commission has moved on to take several measures, all of which have taken the block a step closer to what would be called “Schengen Suspension” despite the heads of the most important EU institutions still in denial that something as a suspension of the agreement is not possible.
External Schengen Borders Close for the First time in Its History
At the very beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak in Europe, Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister of Italy, now the country with the highest number of deaths due to the virus, had ruled out the ideas of Schengen suspension as a way to curb the virus.
“And what do we want to make of Italy? A lazaretto?!” he had told journalists when asked regarding a possible border seal off.
Two weeks after this statement, Italy went into full lockdown, while facing the biggest health challenge since the Spanish virus in 1918. Days later, parallelly with the increase in the number of infected persons, other countries followed with border reintroductions.
Within days, almost all of the 26 Schengen members had either gone into full lockdown, partially or fully reintroduced internal borders, and others like Greece had closed external land borders of the Schengen Area. Only then, the Commission finally proposed the full closure of the external EU and Schengen borders.
The Member States gradually started applying border closure at the external land, air and sea borders, in compliance with the decision of the EU commission, announced later on March 17. Only the UK and Ireland, opted out.
How Does EU Border Closure Function?
Alongside with the decision to close borders, the EU guided the Member States and associate countries on how to apply border closure.
The list of travellers banned from entering the borders of the Schengen and EU territories includes third-country nationals, with exemptions.
Exempt from the common EU travel ban are the following travellers:
- EU/EEA citizens and members of their families.
- Third-country nationals holding a residence card or a residence permit issued by an EU/EEA country.
- Third-country nationals who derive their right of residence from other European Directives or from the national law of a Member State.
- Holders of a long-stay visa, including persons with a temporary residence permit.
- Personnel working in Health Care.
- Border workers.
- Persons employed in the transportation of goods, where necessary.
- Diplomats and personnel of international and humanitarian organizations.
- Military personnel.
- Persons who have compelling reasons to visit their families.
- Transit passengers.
- Persons in need of international protection (the border procedure applies in full) and those who are admitted for humanitarian reasons.
Most of EU Internal Borders Are Already Reintroduced
“In an extremely critical situation, a Member State can identify a need to reintroduce border controls as a reaction to the risk posed by a contagious disease. Member States must notify the reintroduction of border controls in accordance with the Schengen Borders Code,” the guidelines of the EU commission read, published on the day the EU proposed the border closure.
In addition, the EU advised member states reintroducing border controls, to apply them in an adequate manner and with due regard to the health of the persons concerned.
It also noted that for the EU citizens, the safeguards laid down in the Free Movement Directive must be guaranteed. Yet, several countries in addition to Italy, no longer admit EU nationals into the country, as the Czech Republic which has gone into full lockdown and full seal off and does not admit to the country travellers that are not either Czech residents or nationals.
Currently, the European Commission has a list of only 12 Schengen countries, most of which have fully introduced internal border controls in the context of cases requiring immediate action. These are Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Estonia, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium the latest.
Yet, SchengenVisaInfo.com has previously reported that more countries have reintroduced border checks but have failed to notify the European Commission according to the Schengen Border Code, article 28.
Finland has also reintroduced all internal borders as of March 19, though in the context of foreseeable events.
At the same time, six Schengen countries are keeping their borders reintroduced since November, most of them set to expire after April 30.
While Denmark has added Coronavirus COVID-19 as another reason to expand its current border controls at all of its internal borders, Norway, which has controls at its ports with ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden, has also done the same.
Germany, on the other hand, has a land border with Austria, while the latter has land borders with Hungary and Slovenia in place. Lastly, France has also extended its reintroduction of borders of October 31, 2019, to all of its internal borders.
Sweden, which so far has claimed it would not reintroduce all of its borders, has notified the Commission that the partial border reintroduction which is set to expire on May 12 is “to be determined but may concern all internal borders.”
What Would It Be Like to Travel Through EU Without the Schengen Zone?
If the Schengen Agreement is entirely suspended, and the suspension is not lifted upon the end of the pandemic crisis, the impacts for travellers, in particular, will be huge.
Firstly, the Schengen Visa, which enables a traveller to visit the 26 member countries with a single document would become worthless, and travellers would no longer need it. Instead, they would have to apply for a separate visa for each country they wish to visit.
The member states would have to create new application procedures, fees, and rules related to entry and stay.
Secondly, all visa liberalization agreements would become meaningless, and each member would have to establish visa-free entry rules and reach new deals with the countries they want a visa-free regime with. Eventually, several travellers who up until the pandemic could travel visa-free to the Schengen Area would no longer have visa-free access to some of the countries.
I.e. the Netherlands would obviously have Albanians apply for visas before going to the country, and so would France.
Economic Impact of Suspending Schengen
A research of the European Parliament regarding the economic impact of suspending Schengen that dates back to March 2016 foreseers that the re-establishment of permanent border controls would result in the restriction of the four freedoms of the Single Market and would also have a negative economic impact.
The research estimates members states would suffer the loss of €5 billion to €18 billion per year, depending on region, sector and alternative trade channels.
As about two million people cross a European border every day to go to their work, border controls would cost commuters and other travellers about €1.3 and €5.2 billion per year in terms of time lost.
At the same time, member states would have to spend about up to €7.5 billion in extra costs for road hauliers alone due to the systematic border checks.
“One example of such an impact is the closure of the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. That could lead to €300 million a year in lost business and delays in just-in-time production processes, which rely on reliable and speedy logistics. Permanent border controls would also affect the European tourism industry, with potential losses estimated at between €10 and €20 billion per annum,” the EP research had highlighted at the time, still relevant today.
Whereas a France Stratégie study commissioned by the French government, had estimated that the reintroduction of permanent border controls would affect the French GDP to decrease 0.5% in 2025 compared to 2016, or by about €10 billion cumulatively.
The same study foresaw a decrease in trade between Schengen countries by a factor of 10% to 20%, asserting that the combined GDP of the Schengen area would drop by 0.86%, equivalent to an overall loss of €100 billion by 2025.
Another study by the Bertelsmann Foundation which has calculated the economic costs of the abolition of the Schengen agreement asserts that Germany alone would face additional costs of between €77 and €235 billion in total, from 2017 to 2025.
Whereas the cumulative GDP falls for the EU Member States in the Schengen area would be between €471 billion and €1.43 trillion within the same period.