Europe's flagship policy of open borders is in danger of coming apart at the seams, with at least six countries committing to re-establishing border controls in the face of the ongoing migrant crisis.
Germany’s surprise decision to restore controls over the weekend has had a dramatic knock-on effect, prompting other countries including Austria and Hungary to impose checks at their own borders as record numbers of asylum-seekers and economic migrants attempt to make their way across Europe.
Austria said yesterday that it would mobilise its military to help the police carry out checks at the border with Hungary, while the Hungarian government said that its own rules intended to stop the illegal flow of migrants would go into effect today. By 2pm yesterday, Hungarian police said that an unprecedented 7,437 migrants had been recorded entering Hungary from Serbia that day alone.
Meanwhile, European Union ministers held emergency meetings in Brussels in an attempt to hammer out a burden-sharing agreement, as some questioned whether the new border controls were in direct violation of the EU’s Schengen Borders Code.
The European Commission has said that the current situation in Germany “appears to be a situation covered by the rules”, indicating that Article 23 of the Schengen treaty allows for the temporary reintroduction of border controls “where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security”.
But some experts have warned that Germany’s example, and the domino effect it has created across the continent, could threaten the viability of Schengen in the future.
Pawel Swidlicki, a policy analyst at Open Europe, told City A.M. that even temporary controls could have lasting implications for countries both in and out of the Schengen area.
“If the border controls are giving a semblance of being able to better deal with the crisis, there might be a temptation to put those back in place semi-permanently,” he said. “And then that has big implications for the European Union and Cameron’s renegotiation.”
“Sacrificing such a big principle as the border-free zone, that would be quite a big deal,” Swidlicki added. “That could be a precedent that Cameron can point to when he talks about rolling back powers.”
Other experts argue that the temporary controls will be lifted once member states are able to reach an agreement on how to handle the migrant crisis.
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU diplomat, told City A.M. that Germany’s announcement on Sunday was intended to force the hand of EU ministers meeting yesterday.
“I would interpret the German move as a way to say to the others that this European Union operation is an operation in solidarity,” Pierini said, adding: “It is a way for Germany and Austria to say, we are going to have a very forthcoming attitude, but we are not going to do it just on our own.”
Swidlicki made a similar point: “Merkel herself has warned that either there is more solidarity or Schengen will no longer be sustainable.”