The principle of the free movement of persons, one of the pillars the European Union was built upon, is coming under threat. In the early 1980s, a group of countries signed the Schengen Treaty, under which internal border controls between signatory countries would be eliminated while the signatories' external borders would be reinforced.
Over time, this treaty has become one of the most visible symbols of the union. For the first time, most of Western and Central Europe lacked internal border controls. Now, a German citizen traveling to France is more likely to realize that he has changed countries because the road signs are no longer in German, not because he had to stop at a checkpoint to show his passport.
At present, 26 countries have signed the Schengen Treaty. This includes all EU members except the United Kingdom and Ireland, and it includes non-EU countries Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus are candidate countries.
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The treaty has made transit between European countries more fluid, with long lines at the border becoming a thing of the past. More important, Schengen carries great symbolism. For the countries of Western Europe, it embodies the success of the European project. For the first time in its history, Europe is a continent of peace where countries are surrounded by partners, not potential enemies. For countries that once fell under Soviet domination, Schengen is confirmation of their standing as full members in the European Union — and therefore in the West — after decades behind the Iron Curtain.
The current economic crisis has caused Schengen to be questioned. Some members doubt other countries' ability to control their section of the common European border. In April, the governments of France and Germany issued a joint statement questioning a proposal to give the European Commission the power to decide when to allow a country to increase its border controls. Currently, countries do not need EU authorization to introduce such controls under extraordinary circumstances and for short periods. A year before, France and Italy had a diplomatic clash after Rome granted special permissions for illegal African immigrants to cross the border with France.
Membership in Schengen remains an issue of great political importance for EU members that are not yet part of the zone.
Many Western European countries also frequently question Greece's ability to control its borders. The European Union perceives Greece, which is the main destination of illegal immigration from the Balkans, northern Africa and the Middle East, as the weakest link in Schengen. As a result, there have been numerous threats to temporarily suspend Greece's Schengen membership. (Ironically, Brussels-designed austerity measures are limiting Greece's access to the human and technological resources necessary to control its borders.)
At the same time, membership in Schengen remains an issue of great political importance for EU members that are not yet part of the zone. Romania and Bulgaria have been EU members since 2007, but have not yet gained access to Schengen. This is because Western European countries don't fully trust Romania's and Bulgaria's ability to control their borders. They are also concerned about institutional transparency, corruption and legislation on matters of justice and home affairs in the two countries. Romanian government spokesman Andrei Zaharescu said Wednesday that Bucharest is waiting for a decision by the EU Commission on whether to postpone negotiations on Romanian accession to Schengen. After failing to make progress this year, talks are expected to resume in March. Bucharest and Sofia will eventually be allowed in, but the delay in the negotiations reveals the lack of confidence within the European Union toward its new members.
So far, challenges to Schengen have only taken place at the rhetorical level. Often, statements against the treaty are made for domestic political purposes, at present mostly by fringe parties. But the criticism could easily become mainstream. If the Continent's economic crisis deepens, the debate on Schengen could quickly mutate into a debate on the free circulation of persons in Europe, thereby undermining one of the pillars of the European Union.