But restoring the largest free-travel area in the world demands a careful dance between pressure from business and travelers, who want a full restoration of the freedom of movement, and national governments that insist on being able to slam the doors shut to keep COVID out.
That’s why the European Commission on Wednesday took a soft line in its strategy to “save” Schengen.
The strategy, Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said, “is about the European Union being stronger facing out and being freer facing in.” It sets out plans to improve the management of the bloc’s external borders, reinforce cooperation within the Schengen area to tackle security threats and improve the governance of the free-travel area.
But the Commission is putting aside, at least for now, the idea of taking countries to court for restricting movement.
“We all know that the Commission has sharp tools. So that’s possible,” Johansson told a group of reporters on Tuesday. “But I think that my approach is that I would start with a dialogue.”
That’s a sign the Commission recognizes it would be difficult politically to punish countries for acting to halt the spread of the pandemic.
When EU countries shuttered their borders in an uncoordinated attempt to control the virus last spring, the move brought free travel to a stop and caused kilometers-long pile-ups at borders. It was the second big test for Schengen, created in 1995, after a handful of countries reintroduced border controls in the aftermath of the 2015 migration crisis.
Borders are now freer, as most EU countries have replaced blanket restrictions with measures imposing testing and quarantines on travelers. But more than a year after the first border holdups, governments are still trying to coordinate travel measures — this time to create COVID passes, certifying travelers’ jabs, tests or immunity from a past infection, to ease summertime travel.
The ‘status quo of doing nothing’
The sorry state of the free-travel area spurred a call for stronger Commission action in the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee last month.
“There have been no consequences for EU governments that have not acted fairly and proportionately in responding to the pandemic,” Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon, the Social Democrat who led the call, said ahead of the Commission’s presentation. She added that “where the rules are being broken, the status quo of doing nothing cannot go on and we expect the Commission to take EU governments to court.”
But there is no appetite in the Commission to go that far. For now, its strategy relies on improved political dialogue and a closer evaluation of the free-travel area; the executive will present a proposal to rethink the Schengen Borders Code later this year to ensure internal border closures are only used as a “last resort.”
On Wednesday, the Commission proposed beefing up EU’s mechanism assessing countries’ compliance with Schengen rules, after a report last year flagged an excessively long evaluation process, slow follow-up and a lack of political visibility.
To give the evaluation more teeth, Johansson said EU officials should be able to pay on-site visits unannounced — “really unannounced, and not announced 24 hours in advance,” as current rules prescribe.
The Commission also wants to foster a “political dialogue” through an annual Schengen Forum.
Fajon found the Commission’s proposal to revisit the Schengen monitoring mechanism met most, but not all, demands from Parliament.
“Regrettably, the strategy does not say much about internal border controls,” Fajon said in an emailed statement Wednesday, noting that it “doesn’t help” that there’s no pact on migration and asylum in sight. The planned revision of the Schengen Borders Code will be key to save Schengen, she added.
Asked what will really change countries’ instinct to reintroduce border restrictions, Johansson’s answer was: “Trust … There is no other way.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.