France and Germany on Thursday sent a letter to Denmark — the country currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union — expressing their concern about potential reforms to the Schengen Treaty, the legal structure that facilitates free movement of people within the European Union. In the letter, Paris and Berlin expressed their misgivings about the possibility that the European Commission could be given the power to decide when to allow a country to increase its border controls. Countries under the current statute do not need EU authorization to introduce such controls under extraordinary circumstances and for short periods.
This episode is significant for three reasons. First, it takes place in the middle of Europe's worst economic crisis in decades. Countries feel compelled to protect their labor markets, especially against the perceived threat of immigration — both legal and illegal.
EU members such as Spain, Ireland and Portugal, which belong to the Schengen area, are experiencing massive waves of emigration, and core European countries fear that those immigrants could oversaturate their national labor markets. Furthering that concern is the upcoming absorption of Romania and Bulgaria, two countries along the eastern border of the European Union, within the Schengen area. Finally, Greece is perceived as the main port of entry for illegal immigrants, both from the Balkans and Turkey. There is a significant fear that should the Greek economy continue to deteriorate, waves of legal Greek immigrants would join them.
Second, the letter was sent three days before the French presidential election. Immigration has traditionally been a sensitive issue in France. Nicolas Sarkozy has made it a key issue of his presidency, and it was a main theme during the election campaign. As a result, the timing of the letter was designed to impact the elections — especially since Sarkozy has been losing ground to opposition leader Francois Hollande. For Germany, defending a stricter immigration policy is an easy way to gain support from more conservative sectors of the electorate.
This episode is significant for a third, deeper reason. The European Union was built on a dual dynamic. On one hand, countries have gradually ceded sovereignty, especially in economic affairs. This sovereignty has been transferred to supranational institutions in charge of the governance of the European Union. On the other hand, countries have decided to manage other issues (for instance, some aspects of foreign or military policy) in a horizontal, intergovernmental way. Under this second mechanism, countries keep their sovereignty.
This dual dynamic often creates tension between supranational organizations and member states. Institutions such as the European Commission or the European Court of Justice have a clear interest in deepening the integration process. By contrast, countries often seek to maintain their national prerogatives, especially on sensitive issues.
The debate around Schengen clearly illustrates the basic contradiction that exists at the heart of EU institutions. Facing a potential reform of the treaty, the European Commission saw an opportunity to increase its prerogatives. Member countries viewed the Commission's intentions as a threat to their sovereignty.
Moreover, the Schengen agreement is significant because it revolves around a foundational principle of the European project. The European Union was conceived as an area of free movement of persons, goods and services. The economic crisis not only threatens those principles, but also provides fertile ground for populist and nationalist discourse — even among those leaders who present themselves as pro-European.
The tension between national interests and supranational integration has been a characteristic of the European Union since its birth almost six decades ago. However, as the integration process deepens, the issues in dispute become more fundamental and the concessions of sovereignty grow more painful. As a result, the choices for member countries will become increasingly harder to make, and the pressures on the European Union — due to its foundational contradictions — will become all the more intense.