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5 July 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:36pm

Border camps show the Schengen zone only ever promised Europeans free movement

Refugee camps at Germany’s border would violate the promise of a universal right to move. But Schengen never made that promise.

By Isaac Stanley-Becker

Europe is turning against refugees. Germany is poised to build border camps at its southern frontier. The Danish government plans to police regions dense with Muslim residents. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, shut his nation’s ports to rescue boats. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, called for an “axis of the willing” linking Vienna, Berlin and Rome in a battle to keep migrants from Europe.

These moves appear to negate a decades-in-the-making European effort to transform a continent ravaged by world war into an expanse of liberty and post-national peace.

But the tide of nationalist reaction flows from the very logic of European integration, as enshrined in the 1985 Schengen Accord. It exposes the cruel anomalies of human migration in a world where capital and commodities circulate globally with far less restraint.

Under a provisional agreement bandaging Germany’s governing coalition, migrants would be screened in camps along the Austrian border, and any found to have sought asylum in another European Union state would be returned there. The agreement – which patches a rift between Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and the more conservative Christian Social Union, but awaits approval from the centre-left Social Democrats – departs from the open-doors policy adopted by Germany in welcoming a million refugees in 2015. It further diminishes the standing of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, as a keeper of the liberal tradition in a European bloc swept by xenophobia.

But the campaign to regulate the movements of non-Europeans hardly represents a sudden populist backlash. To the contrary, it fulfills the bargain struck by European states in Schengen, a wine-making town in Luxembourg, where diplomats gathered in 1985 to create a zone of free movement while expanding state authority over the movement of non-European nationals.

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“We said at the time that reinforcing external borders was necessary to compensate for easing internal borders,” Catherine Lalumière, France’s delegate to Schengen, told me. “Each state was made responsible for security, but it was not done.”

Schengen is at the heart of the present turmoil, but not in the way Eurosceptics allege. “It must go,” said Nigel Farage after the suspect in the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin turned up in Italy. Horst Seehofer, the renegade German interior minister who has brought Merkel’s government to the brink of collapse, seeks the agreement’s suspension. The prospect of a hard border with Austria would seem to presage the death of Schengen by a thousand cuts, especially following the reinstatement of border checks elsewhere in Europe.

The irony is that Schengen is compatible with the plan to confine asylum seekers in holding centres as other travelers come and go at will.

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Planting refugee camps at Germany’s southern border would violate the promise of a universal right to move, that is true. But Schengen never made this promise. Rather, it intended free movement only for certain people – Europeans – and authorised selective probes to detect illegal migrants. Today, this procedure could take the form of discretionary screening. Such a procedure, though, seems likely to unjustly favour white travellers, with people of colour presumed to be trespassers in the privileged zone of porous Europe.

This discriminatory logic appeared in Schengen’s earliest blueprints. In the diplomatic meetings producing the accord, state delegations meeting in Bonn, Paris and Brussels compiled lists of countries, from Haiti to Yemen to Madagascar, posing immigration threats to Europe. The lists dictated which people were subject to new visa requirements for entry into the Schengen area.

Anticipating the EU’s single market, Schengen affirmed the free movement of goods and services among nations – initially France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and now all EU states except the UK and Ireland. At the same time, the accord gave individual nation states control over the movement of non-Europeans, including asylum seekers. No matter that the 1951 Geneva Convention made the fate of refugees a matter of international law.

While easing checks at internal borders, Schengen required refugees to file for asylum in the country of first arrival – a mandate that lies at the heart of the deal reached this week to stabilise the German government.

A quarter of a century ago, this very mandate evoked condemnation when Schengen came before national legislatures for ratification. Codified in the Dublin Convention of 1990, it was also challenged by Amnesty International and the UN high commissioner for refugees. Critics foresaw a violation of human rights.

The warnings went unheeded, but resonate even more powerfully today. The world Schengen made is hardly one of open borders. And within this world, the boundaries are hardening for Europe’s most vulnerable denizens.

Isaac Stanley-Becker is a doctoral student in modern European history at Oxford. He also writes for the Washington Post.