Free travel through 26 European countries with 400 million inhabitants spanning more than four million square kilometres: this is the achievement of an agreement that was signed in the Luxembourgish town of Schengen 27 years ago. Yet after member states claimed on 7 June for themselves the right to decide under what conditions border controls could be reintroduced, the Parliament worries that the fundamental freedom of free movement may be under attack.
All EU member states apart from Ireland, the UK, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus, are part of the Schengen area, which also includes the following non-EU states: Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.
EU interior ministers agreed on 7 June to exclude the European Parliament and the European Commission from participating in the governance of the Schengen area.
We talked to the Portuguese Christian-Democrat MEP Carlos Coelho and the Romanian Liberal-Democrat MEP Renate Weber, who are responsible for steering proposals on the Schengen evaluation mechanism and internal border controls respectively through Parliament, about what this means for the future of free movement in the EU.
Schengen: cornerstone of the EU
The Schengen area with no controls on internal borders is not only one of the EU's biggest achievements, it is also by far the most noticeable for citizens and businesses alike, said Ms Weber. Mr Coelho added: "Schengen is important because it means free movement. Almost 60% of European citizens identify free movement as the biggest success of European integration."
Reintroducing border controls already a possibility
Mr Coelho is convinced that the governments' efforts to exert exclusive control over the governance of the Schengen area cannot be justified by national security concerns. He pointed out that under existing legislation checks on internal borders can already be reintroduced in the case of an emergency.
Ms Weber warned that relying on the intergovernmental method to create rules for the Schengen area was not the right way to proceed, saying that without Commission oversight EU government tend to cover for each other when problems are identified. "In a time of crisis it is very unfortunate to send a message on less Europe, rather than more Europe, as it damages European citizens' trust in the EU."
Evaluation mechanism needed
Mr Coelho said that there had already been quite a few Schengen-related problems in the EU, referring amongst others to Franco-Italian tensions over North African illegal immigrants. "If we have to live with a Schengen area that is not a European project but depends exclusively on member states, then we will probably see those problems more often," concluded Mr Coelho, who in his report advocates a bigger role for the Commission in decisions that could lead to the reintroduction of border controls.
Ms Weber also highlighted the need for solidarity with member states that are responsible for taking care of the EU's external borders. "If we are in this together, we have to share responsibility and show solidarity with those that are in a more difficult position."
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