The European Commission wants to reform one of the EU's most palpable achievements: the passport-free Schengen Area.
Established in 1995, the space encompasses more than 400 million citizens who are allowed to cross borders without being subject to checks and controls.
It includes 22 of the 27 EU member states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and several micro states. Over 3.5 million people cross between Schengen states every day.
But despite its popularity, Schengen's integrity has been severely damaged by two recent crises: the 2015 influx of migrants and refugees and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both episodes saw many EU countries reintroduce border checks, arguing the extraordinary circumstances required extraordinary measures.
With the aim of preparing the Schengen area for the post-COVID era and making it "stronger and more resilient", the Commission has unveiled a new strategy centred on three pillars: external borders, internal measures and governance.
The plan comes as European economies reopen after lifting coronavirus restrictions and cross-border travel gradually normalises.
However, as of today, six Schengen nations (Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Hungary and France) still have in place controls related to the health crisis, while another group of six (Norway, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and France) monitor movements involving possible terrorist and criminal threats.
"I think that it's important that member states have the possibility to temporarily reintroduce border controls when there are a severe threat towards that specific country," Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for home affairs, said on Wednesday afternoon, after presenting the strategy.
"What I would like to make sure is that this is a measure of last resort. And I would also like to address the situation like the one we are in right now, when we have a pandemic that is threatening all the member states at the same time.
"When we have [a] threat to all member states but they are acting individually, that causes problems and that we need to address [it]."
What's in the new Schengen strategy?
According to the strategy, Frontex, the EU's border control agency, will continue to play a central role in the management of the EU's external borders.
Frontex expects to have a standing corps of 10,000 staff by 2027, with 5,000 officials already deployed throughout 2021.
"We can end up with the most modern border management system in the world and we need that. But we cannot build a fortress Europe. We need to work with neighbouring countries to work together with them," Johansson told reporters.
The Commission has been promoting a new pact on migration and asylum since September, but deep-rooted disagreements among EU countries have brought the proposal to an effective standstill. For Brussels, the pact is an essential element to strengthen the Schengen Area.
"To have an area of free movement without internal border controls, everybody has to have trust that all other members in the same area are doing their part and are protecting external borders in a proper way and are cooperating in a good way when it comes to security issues. And this is what I would like to strengthen," the Commissioner said.
When it comes to internal measures inside the passport-free space, the Commission recommends the introduction of a EU-wide police cooperation code and an upgrade to the exchange of information on DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration.
The executive suggests the advance passenger information (API) system, which currently gathers data on passengers that enter the Schengen space, also be used for intra-Schengen flights.
Johansson denied closer police cooperation and greater exchange of information would come at the expense of citizens' fundamental rights.
"We need police cooperation. We have police cooperation, but we have to make it swifter and quicker and easier," she said.
Additionally, Brussels wants to have more regular dialogue with national governments to identify and address common challenges. It also intends to conduct more unannounced on-site visits to supervise the correct implementation of Schengen rules.
New Schengen members ?
During the presentation of the strategy, the Commission again voiced its support in favour of the applications of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia to join Schengen.
The final decision will be up to the other member states, who have so far been unable to reach consensus on the matter.
"We have assessed Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, and they are fulfilling the requirement to be full members of the Schengen area, and it's important to remember it's not only the expectation from these countries and the citizens of [these] countries, it's also an obligation to enter the Schengen area," Johansson said, referring to the EU treaties.
In the case of Cyprus, an island that is split between Greek Cypriots in the South and Turkish Cypriots in the North, the Commissioner explained the country was still not ready to become a Schengen state.