The return of border controls: Act in haste, repent at leisure

As the refugee crisis places the Schengen agreement under increasing pressure. What are the implications for other EU flagship initiatives?

By Colin Mackay

25 Sep 2015

One of the great drivers and motivators of the European project has always been the dismantling of barriers between member states. This was not simply about dismantling physical frontiers such as border controls; it means projects that have genuinely brought European nations closer, such as the CAP, the single market, the Euro and the Schengen agreement.

For all its difficulties and rancour, the Eurozone crisis was an example of the EU defending its own flagship policies. However, the refugee crisis has highlighted a worrying fragility in some of the cornerstones of the European project.

It has provoked a number of member states to reintroduce – albeit temporarily – border controls. This amounts to a de facto suspension of the Schengen agreement. We should not forget that free movement of citizens was considered so important that for the ten new member states that joined the EU in 2004, becoming part of Schengen was mandatory. Although this was not aimed at restricting the movements of EU citizens, it becomes an inevitable consequence.


Yet outcry at this landmark move has been surprisingly muted, and the ease and speed with which citizens have accepted this change is remarkable. It has come about without proper debate on the implications for other EU flagship policies. Many of these were built on the concept of free movement of people and services. Therefore if free movement becomes optional and unpredictable, can the grand projects of the EU continue? What is the future for initiatives such as the Energy Union or cross border healthcare?

Cross border healthcare demonstrates the conundrum. This concept was designed to empower patients, by letting them travel to where healthcare services were available and affordable. This would reduce costs and spread expertise. Patients are already travelling from Austria to Germany to access treatments such as cataract removal; how can these arrangements survive in the face of ad hoc border controls?

Equally, how will initiatives like the Energy Union prosper? Will member states really allow energy to flow across the EU without hindrance? Or do current events set an example, with member states imposing ‘temporary restrictions’ to cross-border flow in the event of energy shortages?

This is why debate and reflection is vitally important. Suspension of Schengen arrangements may have been an understandable, if knee-jerk, reaction, but the implications of such actions like these are immense. They set precedents with potentially severe consequences that have not been fully considered. Border controls may just represent the thin end of the wedge.

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