Challenge for solidarity

Wednesday, 2020-12-02 11:03:25
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A sign marking the border entry into the village of Schengen in Luxembourg, which gave its name to the treaty signed on free movement in Europe. (Photo: Reuters)
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NDO – The Schengen Agreement has played a very important role for Europe both in terms of politics and economics. However, the COVID-19 pandemic that has raged for nearly a year has posed many challenges for this agreement, reflecting the Continent's goals of integration, solidarity and unity. Leaders of the European Union (EU) are calling for the protection of the free movement area to serve the post-pandemic recovery process.

In her speech on November 30, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson warned that internal border controls would damage GDP significantly, as well as economic recovery momentum which is currently very fragile in Europe. According to the EU official, as the EU is currently grappling with one of the biggest economic crises in history, maintaining the flow of free movement, both in terms of people, goods and services, is an important tool in the recovery process. Internal border checks are not an effective tool to prevent crime and terrorism, but in fact, will stop transport, trade and tourists.

The warning from the EU Home Affairs Commissioner came in the context of Europe facing great pressure to control its borders after a series of attacks and terrorism in France, Germany and Austria, raising fears that terrorists can easily enter Europe due to freedom of movement policies. After the October 29 attack in the French city of Nice, the culprit being an illegal immigrant who had entered France and once passed through Italy, FrenchPresident E. Macron urged reform of the Schengen system and the tightening of regulations on travel.

However, even before the recent terrorist attacks involving illegal immigration into Europe, blockade and restriction measures to prevent and fight the pandemic, including control and closure of borders, have been applied by many Schengen member countries to protect themselves against the “COVID-19 storm”.

Shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, Germany restricted movement along most of its border. Aseries of Schengen countries, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland also quickly adopted the same measure. As a first joint step, on March 17, the EU imposed a temporary ban on entry to people from outside the region to ensure the public health and safety.

Many European countries consider national borders as an effective "screening net" to prevent the spread of the virus. In fact, at least 17 Schengen member countries returned to the implementation of border measures as soon as the pandemic broke out.

From the original agreement signed by France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1985 in the Belgian town of Schengen, the Agreement currently has 26 members, including 22 EU countries. With the initial goal of creating a common market to ensure the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital flows, toward the formation of the European economic community, in the process of European integration, the Schengen Agreement expanded its regulations, abolished border controls, passports and visas, and guaranteed the freedom of movement of citizens of member countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic with its unpredictable and complicated implications is creating a new “test”, not only within the Schengen freedom-of-movement area, but also with regard to the EU's immigration policy. During the immigration crisis in 2015, when waves of migrants from the Middle East - North Africa flocked through EU borders, a lack of cooperation, consensus and general policy has been revealed. The COVID-19 pandemic has once again posed a challenge to the EU's integration goals on its way to realise the dream of a united Europe.

Europe is facing a difficult choice. Border control can help prevent terrorists from taking advantage of the Schengen freedom of movement mechanism. However, if the economic connectivity, trade and tourism flows are not maintained, the continent will find it hard to escape from the economic recession caused by the pandemic. The solution to this difficult problem may still line in the solidarity and unity needed to find a common policy.