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Schengen Area: Europe's free travel zone is set to get bigger — but what are the implications?

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Schengen Area: Europe's free travel zone is set to get bigger — but what are the implications?
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Europe’s Schengen zone — the world’s largest multinational free-travel area — is set to get even bigger now that Croatia has met the technical criteria to join.

But what does Schengen expansion mean for Europe, and can the EU overcome its border policy crisis triggered by the migrant influx that began in 2014?

Croatia stands to receive a tourism boost as its stunning coastline is opened up to visitors with Schengen-wide visas.

Yet its accession to the zone — a rare victory for expansionists in an EU battered by mass migration and populism — could still fail at the final hurdle if it is blocked by existing members.

Emmanuel Macron declared earlier this year that Schengen was no longer fit for dealing with mass migration, an issue that he called the "second great European struggle” after climate change.

Schengen “does not work any more,” the French president said. "We must profoundly rethink our development policy and our migration policy, even if it is a Schengen with fewer states.”

Schengen strain

Croatia would represent Schengen’s first territorial expansion in more than a decade when the accession of Switzerland was completed in 2008.

It would also mark an expansion of ambition for a scheme that has weakened in recent years.

The Schengen zone currently comprises 22 of the EU's 28 member states as well as four non-EU members: Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, is one of six members not in Schengen, alongside the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus.)

The zone’s external borders cover 50,000 kilometres, according to the European Parliament.

Although held up as a major part of the European ideal, Schengen was one of the first casualties of the migrant crisis and wave of terrorist attacks, with many members throwing up internal border checks and temporary security controls in 2015 and 2016 — most of which are still in place.

“Saving Schengen is a race against time and we are determined to win that race," Donald Tusk said at the height of the crisis, in 2016.

But with immigration still dominating politics, and the rise of populism, as well as the distraction of Brexit, many of the temporary measures have yet to be rolled back.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban has made huge political capital out of his new razor-wire-topped border fence with Serbia and aggressive rhetoric about defending Europe from migrants.

Six Schengen countries still apply internal border controls: France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

“These controls are even in place at borders between Schengen members, such as France and Spain,” notes Marco Stefan, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

In a report into the Schengen dysfunction published last year, MEPs concluded that many internal borders are still in place “because we are paying the price of problems that are outside the scope of Schengen, such as asylum policy.”

“The Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the European Union,” wrote the lead author, Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese member of the EPP.

“National governments made Schengen into the scapegoat for the failures of security policies. Yet, Schengen is not the problem, it is the solution. If Schengen perishes, the Europe of citizens that we have today will vanish.”

The CEPS’ Stefan said the grey area in Schengen’s rules that allow members to bend the rules “will need to be looked at” by the incoming European leadership.

“A major issue is the lack of a comprehensive evaluation mechanism for providing evidence of why a suspension of free movement is needed,” he said. “It is still unresolved.”

Final frontier

Border control is a major issue in Croatian membership of Schengen, not just because migrants continue to use the Balkans as a route towards western Europe, but because the former Yugoslav nation has 1,300 kilometres of border with non-EU countries.

Candidate countries must meet the requirements for a common standard in four areas: airport border checks, visas, police cooperation, and personal data protection.

Zagreb has had to convince Brussels that it will be able to effectively manage the EU’s external border, at precisely the time the frontier is under its greatest pressure since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Humanitarian groups estimate there are at least 5,500 women, men and children in two Bosnian towns near the Croatian border, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, living in former factories without basic amenities. Bosnia cannot offer them adequate protection or living conditions, and many migrants see crossing into Croatia as their main aim.

“Control over the EU’s external borders is the most demanding aspect of our preparations,” the country’s interior secretary, Terezija Gras, told Reuters on Tuesday. “We have already fully equipped our border with Serbia and now we’re doing it on the border with Bosnia.”

She added: “We have shown very clearly that we are up to the job, We have one of the strongest border police forces in Europe. We are capable of protecting what is not only the border of Croatia but also the EU. We have done a lot since the 2015 crisis.”

Yet there are signs that Croatia’s approach to controlling its borders has been too strong.

“There are doubts regarding Croatia’s capacity to effectively implement consistent border control given the wealth of evidence of authorities violating the rights of migrants trying to cross and this is something that needs to be looked at closely,” said Marco Stefan of CEPS.

In 2018, there were instances of migrants being pushed back over the border into Bosnia, against EU conventions.

And earlier this year, Amnesty International said European governments are not only “turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police” but also funding their activities as part of efforts to improve security.

“To understand where the priorities of European governments lie, one only needs to follow the money,” said Massimo Moratti, Director of Research for Amnesty International’s Europe Office.

“Their financial contribution towards humanitarian assistance is dwarfed by the funds they provide for border security which includes equipping Croatian border police and even paying their salaries.”

There are also questions, Stefan says, over the training and deployment of thousands of extra Frontex border guards being recruited to boost Europe’s defences.

“Where will they be trained, and according to what standards?” Stefan said.

Neighbour disputes

Croatia’s accession has been further complicated by its territorial dispute with Slovenia over waters in the northern Adriatic Sea. Also formerly part of Yugoslavia but now a full member of the EU, Slovenia has previously threatened to veto Croatia’s candidacy.

In 2009, the two countries agreed to rely on international arbitration to resolve their dispute over a sliver of land and sea border in the northern Adriatic.

But Croatia withdrew after media reported that separate talks had been held between the Slovenian arbitration judge and a Slovenian representative.

Earlier this month, Miro Cerar, Slovenia’s foreign minister, said Croatia must accept an arbitration decision if it is to avoid being vetoed - although there are signs that position has softened.

Slovenia sees the timing of Croatia’s technical approval as politically-motivated, coming as outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, an avowed expansionist, tries to secure his legacy.

Marjan Sarec, Prime Minister of Slovenia, called the decision “questionable.”

“We are somewhat concerned that this is done along political lines,” he said. “We know that Juncker and [Croatian Prime Minister Andrej] Plenkovic are members of the same European [political] group.”

It means Zagreb still has some hurdles to overcome before it can join Schengen. "Croatia will need to continue working on the implementation of all ongoing actions, in particular, its management of the external borders," the European Commission said on Tuesday.

Another problematic area is Pelješac, Croatia's southern isthmus pointing towards Montenegro. It can only be reached via the mainland by crossing through a narrow corridor of Bosnian territory that was designed to grant Bosnia sea access. The double-crossing is already the cause of long traffic delays during the summer, and there are fears that could worsen with tighter border checks.

However, Croatia is expected to complete a vast bridge in 2021 that takes traffic over the Bosnian territory; the project has been delayed by Bosnian fears that it would impede big ships at its only open-sea access.

Cash benefits

European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos hailed Croatia’s completion of testing on Tuesday as a step that would “contribute to further strengthening the Schengen area” as well as promoting the ideal of inclusiveness.

But there are more tangible benefits for the EU’s beacon in the Balkans, where tourism accounts for almost 20% of GDP.

Schengen entry would remove border controls for the 11.6 million tourists (75% of total foreign visitors) annually to Croatia from Schengen-area countries, according to analysts IHS Markit.

It would also boost tourism from visitors to Europe, who are granted a visa valid for Schengen countries, by adding Croatia to their permitted itineraries.

Shipping, which accounts for 4% of Croatia's GDP, also stands to benefit, according to IHS Markit analyst Andrew Birch.

“Rijeka is already a busy seaport, particularly for energy transport, with an oil pipeline connection to Budapest,” he notes. “The removal of border controls on cargo transport from Croatia to the EU interior would boost port activity, as it is the closest seaport to Hungary and Slovakia, with motorway connections already established.”

Regardless of trade deals, keeping borders open is big business in itself. A report from the Bertelsmann Foundation estimated that the reintroduction of permanent border controls would lead to a growth loss of €470 billion in total for the EU until 2025.

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