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Feb 01, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Schengen Must Be Protected on the Frontier, Not by Re-Building Long-Ago Abolished, Internal Border Controls

The Schengen Area, first established in 1995, has eliminated border controls and allowed the free movement of people and goods in a vast geographic area that now spans 26 countries of Europe. The ongoing crisis of mass migration, however, has threatened to change all of that.

In the early weeks of 2015, Hungary was among the first to propose stricter border protection on the external Schengen borders to prepare for the imminent influx of migrants. With a huge increase expected, it only made sense to make preparations to better manage and control the frontiers of Europe. Some were quick to criticize our proposals and condemn our own efforts to protect Hungary’s southern border, referring to it absurdly as some kind of new Iron Curtain. Not only did those critics seem to have a poor grasp of history, many of them failed to understand that Hungary was protecting an external border of the Schengen Area, something we are obliged to do as a member of the Schengen Agreement.

How times have changed! Having begun construction in December last year, Austria is now completing its 3.7-kilometer fence near the Spielfeld border crossing. That would be the Spielfeld on the border between Austria and Slovania, making Austria’s fence the first one between two Schengen countries. Not only is it a fence inside Schengen, but in accordance with new regulations issued by the Austrian Defense Ministry, the Austrian army will be deployed at its border to stop migrants who intend cross into Europe’s Schengen Area bound for the wealthier European countries. Where the government of Austria had previously said it would be letting every migrant in, it now says that it is capping the number of asylum seekers at 37,500 for this year.

European leaders have come to realize the threat that uncontrolled migration poses to the freedom of travel and trade in the Schengen Area. In the words of Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, “if the EU does not manage to secure the external borders, Schengen as a whole is put into question”. European Council President Donald Tusk stated that the EU has “no more than months” to manage the migration crisis, and failure to do so would result in the collapse of its open-border policy. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went even further when, speaking to the BBC, he said that “if Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned.”

However, it’s not just Austria that is re-establishing border controls inside Schengen. We’re now hearing more frequent reports of other countries standing up reinforcement on borders between Schengen countries. Just days after Tusk’s warning, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere suggestedthat Germany could maintain the border controls that it first re-introduced in September for up to two years, anticipating a worsening migrant crisis.

Europe is beginning to wake up to the threat of migration. Migration on such a huge scale introduces major shifts in population, places a considerable burden on law enforcement and social welfare systems, raises security concerns and destabilizes our societies. But re-building long-ago abolished, internal border controls — the frontiers within Europe that we worked so hard to erase — is not the solution. The answer calls for a more concerted effort on the external borders of Europe.

Following a bilateral meeting recently with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Slovenian President Miro Cerar expressed support for a proposal to strengthen the Macedonian-Greek border with the help of Frontex. Such a move has become necessary because Greece has failed to comply with Schengen regulations and puts the whole system at risk.

Currently, Europe’s outer border in the western Balkans, which is the busiest migrant route and border crossing leading into the heart of the continent, is protected by Bulgaria and Macedonia. One has erected a fence on its border with Turkey, and the other is clamping down on the number of migrants coming from Greece. Together, they serve as a vital line of defense of Europe’s frontier.

“I think it is unfair that there is no recognition of the fact that throughout the current migrant crisis, Bulgaria has been the country outside the Schengen Area which has been the most effective in its actions. In recent years European banks have undergone stress tests; I have to say that if there were a stress test now for all the countries on the migration route, Bulgaria would prove that it has passed that stress test with flying colors,” Prime Minister Orbán said following a recent meeting with his Bulgarian counterpart, Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov.

Europe’s next step, according to Hungary, should be to admit Bulgaria into the Schengen Area at the earliest opportunity. Bulgaria has proved that in a critical situation it is ready to take difficult but necessary action. At the same time, the European Union should sign an agreement with Macedonia providing financial and technical assistance for the protection of its borders. Hungary is among the few countries already supporting Macedonia, since wedeployed some 30 police officers as reinforcements.

Europe must brace itself for the next wave of migrants as the crisis is not likely to subside soon. New waves of people are headed for the European continent. For the sake of the protection of our freedom to travel unrestrictedly within the Schengen Area, we must be able to responsibly manage and control this migration influx. Control must start with a robust protection of the external, Schengen border as Schengen cannot be protected from within. Hungary has done its part. Now it’s time for other countries to do so as well.

Picture source: delorsinstitute.eu