By removing their internal border controls, countries, which are a part of the Schengen Agreement, effectively abandoned their sovereignty in favor of free movement. The problem is that they embarked on this project without the necessary preparations to secure their external borders and a proper plan to deal with a migration crisis. Just as it was in 2008, when the financial crisis in Europe exposed the design flaws of the monetary union, the 2015–2016 refugee crisis revealed how easily could the Schengen system crumble.
The good news is that the European Union received 43 percent less asylum applications in 2017 than it did in 2016. The mass reception centers have mostly emptied, and the school gyms and army barracks now serve their original purpose. But while the acute crisis has ended, the situation has hardly normalized. The 2018 Italian elections showed that migration and asylum are still major issues of concern among the general public that shape politics not only in Italy, but in the rest of the Union as well. Border controls at several internal Schengen borders are still in place, and migration remains the top concern for EU citizens.
But why has the 2015 influx of 1.4 million refugees had such a lasting impact? One possible answer might be the sheer unexpectedness of this crisis. The last massive influx happened after the Yugoslav Wars in the mid-1990s. Between then and 2015, most Europeans lived in an undisturbed comfort and security. They were certainly aware of the growing instability, but these troubles always seemed to be so far away. Then, all of the sudden, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants climbed out of boats, walked across borders, and occupied public spaces in European towns and villages. This not only shattered the illusion of tranquility but also showed that the EU simply lost control.
During these last two years, the EU has made significant progress in managing migration. The institutions have established a network with third countries and became more effective at fighting smuggling networks, facilitating the return of illegal migrants, and developing instruments to address the root causes of migration. There are still big gaps in the EU’s partnerships with African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, but still, things are looking better than they did two years ago.
Despite this external progress, sudden surges of migration toward Europe are still likely to happen. In the long term, the Schengen system will only be sustainable if its policies are clear and precise. It will not hold up against severe migration challenges as long as it is essentially up to individual member states to protect their own external border and make their own decisions on asylum and migration. Making Schengen a sustainable option will require an advancement in three key areas: external border protection, asylum procedures, and migration policy.
Nevertheless, stronger EU rules and institutions clearly remain key to controlling the external borders and establishing effective policies on asylum and migration. A more ambitious approach is needed to set up a genuinely integrated asylum system and better coordinate migration policy. Moreover, the deficits in capacity and trust among member states also must be addressed. If this does not happen, the EU will remain vulnerable to another surge in migration, and the long-term sustainability of the Schengen system – and maybe even the EU itself – will be in serious jeopardy.
‘The EU Remains Unprepared for the Next Migration Crisis’ – Analysis by Stefan Lehne – Carnegie Europe.
(The Analysis can be downloaded here)