The migrant crisis and the future of Schengen

Hoai-Thu Nguyen is onderzoeker bij de Universiteit van Maastricht.

De laatste tijd zijn er vanuit verschillende hoeken vraagtekens gezet bij het Schengenakkoord. Stemmen gaan op dat het akkoord wellicht niet houdbaar of wensbaar meer is met de vluchtelingencrisis als nieuwe realiteit. In het licht van de recente ontwikkelingen heeft dat echter voor meer dan alleen Schengen zelf betekenis. Het Schengenakkoord hangt met zoveel andere afspraken samen, dat de implicaties van de verschillende voorgestelde maatregelen voor de EU als geheel, moeilijk te voorspellen zullen zijn. 

The Schengen area is, since the signing of the Schengen agreement in 1985 and its later incorporation into the acquis communautaire with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, an area without internal border controls between 26 countries – excluding the European Union (EU) Member States Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom but including the non-EU Member States Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It is one of the fundamental cornerstones of European integration and the abolition of border controls within the Schengen zone is accompanied a tightening of its external borders.

Leaving migration to the member states 

Similar to the single currency, the Euro, where economic policy was left in the hands of the Member States while monetary policy became the responsibility of the European Central Bank, the checking of the external borders as well as migration policy in Schengen remain for the national governments to conduct and decide. This has now become an issue with Europe facing what seems to be the largest movement of people since the Second World War and more than 1 million migrants seeking refuge in one of the Member States of the EU in 2015.[1]  Most refugees arrived in Greece or Italy, and once they have entered the Schengen area, they are free to move across the borders and into central Europe, with many heading towards western and northern Europe.

As a response a number of countries – including Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Norway, and, as one of the last ones, Sweden – re-introduced temporary controls at their borders in order to cope with the “unprecedented influx of persons seeking international protection”.[2] The Schengen Borders Code allows for such measures for up to six months in the event of a serious threat to public policy or internal security. However, there seems to be plans that go even further than the simple re-introduction of internal border controls. One of them is to extend the maximum period of internal border controls from six months to two years, where “the overall functioning of the area without internal border control is put at risk, and insofar as the exceptional circumstances constitute a serious threat to public policy or internal security”.[3]

A 'mini-Schengen'

Another idea was introduced by Eurogroup leader and Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who according to news reports mentioned the concept of a “mini-Schengen” between a group of selected Member States only, most notably Germany, Austria and the Benelux countries (other reports include Sweden instead of Luxembourg as one of the participating countries).[4] He was cited by EUobserver to have stated that “there is a lack of solidarity in the EU with those countries which are the main destinations for migrants – the richer nations in the north-west of the bloc,”[5] assumedly meaning the eastern European countries who have met the EU relocation scheme for refugees decided in September 2015 with fierce reluctance. Neither does the plan include Greece, which in the past has had issues with protecting its external borders. According to Dijsselbloem the mini-Schengen could serve as a fall-back plan in the case that no agreement could be reached with regard to sharing the burden of the current refugee crisis between the different EU Member States, even though no official plans in this regard exist yet.[6]

The European Commission, on the other hand, has on Tuesday, 15 December 2015 published a concrete proposal to establish a European Border and Coast Guard to protect the external borders of Schengen. Amongst others, the border control force will support Member States, upon their request, with joint operations and border interventions. But it may also intervene against the will of the Member State concerned, upon a Commission decision, where “deficiencies persist or where a Member State is under significant migratory pressure putting in peril the Schengen area and national action is not forthcoming or not enough”.[7]

Another core project at risk

It thus seems as if after six years of Euro crisis, during which both the idea of a single currency and the solidarity amongst the Member States were doubted, the EU is now slithering into yet another crisis which puts yet another of its core projects in peril. With the declining solidarity amongst the Member States, the seeming incapability of finding common solutions to common challenges such as migration and terror, the rise of anti-EU political parties and the looming referendum on a possible Brexit in 2017, the question of what will happen to Schengen might be more than that – it may as well be the question of what will happen to the European Union itself.



[1] European Council, Note from the Presidency to the Permanent Representatives Committee on the Integrity of the Schengen area, available at: (last visited on 15 December 2015).

[2] List of Member States’ notifications of the temporary reintroduction of border control at internal borders pursuant to Article 23 et seq. of the Schengen Borders Code, available at: (last visited on 15 December 2015).

[3] European Council, supra note 1.

[4] EUobserver, “Dutch diplomat: ‘Is there a mini-Schengen plan? No?’”, 30 November 2015, available at: (last visited on 15 December 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] European Commission, “A European Border and Coast Guard to protect Europe’s External Borders”, Press release from 15 December 2015, available at: (last visited on 15 December 2015).