Schengen no more? The EU as we know it is on the brink

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Police maintain order as migrants attempt to leave the border crossing in Nickelsdorf, Austria September 14, 2015. © Leonhard Foeger
The current refugee crisis, caused by western foreign policy, could have the unintended consequence of destroying the entire EU project.

In the 19th century, it was possible to travel overland from Paris to St Petersburg without passing a manned border or needing a visa. As travel became cheaper and faster, governments slowly began to erect impediments to free movement.  After the First World War, governments began to require passports and entry permits.

Since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, birthing the European Economic Community (later called the European Union), European leaders have collectively promoted the removal of barriers – whether related to the circulation of trade or people. For almost 60 years, the momentum has only swung one way – ever closer union and ever more liberal migration laws.

This weekend, it all changed. Since 1995, when the Schengen zone was created, the open travel agreement has only been paused in exceptional, localized circumstances. Malta once introduced temporary checks for a Papal visit and Estonia to facilitate security for Barack Obama’s brief stop. France and Denmark previously kicked up a stink about asylum seekers abusing the system, but didn’t close it down.  

Now, Germany has reinstated border controls with Austria. The Czech Republic is also boosting checks on its frontier and reports on Monday morning suggest that Poland may be next in line.

As the EU’s biggest country, located at the group’s geographical center, Germany is the fulcrum of the Schengen system. It borders nine members. Without Germany’s involvement, the Schengen zone is staring over the precipice of collapse. Like a gigantic set of dominoes, a new reality is hurtling across the continent. The question now is where will it all end?

While the states involved will claim that the controls are temporary, the damage to the principle of free movement is permanent. The entire foundation, purpose and fabric of the EU have been undermined.

Eurocrats have always been determined to ape the US. A sizeable bloc in Brussels sees the EU as the only credible global rival to the superpower and has long sought to redesign Europe in Washington’s image. The Euro currency and the Schengen zone were the two main tools. A single currency and unrestricted travel were intended to dilute national identity and clear a path to an eventual Federal EU.

This hasn’t worked. It was never going succeed either. The most obvious impediment was language difficulties. As economic winds vary, Americans can relatively easily move around their vast country. Every state speaks the same language and shares a similar outlook. In Europe, obviously, this is not the case. You can’t expect a 50-year-old Portuguese person to suddenly up sticks to Finland and learn a complicated tongue for the sake of a cleaning job. Apart from linguistic hurdles, religious differences and past conflicts haunt the continent.

Migrants wait after being taken off a train at the border station in Freilassing, Germany September 14, 2015. © Dominic Ebenbichler

An East-West divide 

Then there are attitudes. Despite current fiscal problems, Western Europe remains the most influential place on the planet. The global elite still hop from London and Paris to the Cote d’Azur and the Amalfi coast. Berlin, Dublin and Barcelona exude “cool” and Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Madrid remain key hubs. Meanwhile, east of Vienna, with the exception of Russia, the last 25 years have only delivered stagnation.

To make things worse, some countries, like Lithuania and Latvia, have also endured staggering population falls, rendering their futures bleak. The mass exodus of youth has also served to further entrench conservatism, and in some cases, outright racism. For example, in Estonia, where a former foreign minister claimed last week that “the white race is in danger in Europe." Concurrently, Western Europe continues to liberalize at a breakneck pace.

The difference in values between opposite sides of the EU is astounding. At the same time that Germany has led a clamor to accommodate refugees the east has remained hostile to outsiders. The head of the Latvian Lutheran Church has insisted his nation take only Christian refugees. At the same time, Riga’s opposition party, the National Alliance, claims that Latvia should be exempt from taking any at all. When Latvia left the USSR, a quarter of a century ago, its population was 2.7 million. Mass emigration since has reduced that figure to 1.9 million. As a consequence, you’d have thought they’d be delighted to accept an influx of new residents.

Meanwhile, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, has complained about “dictates” from Brussels to accept asylum seekers. Slovakia’s Robert Fico insists that Bratislava will accept only Christian refugees as it would be “false solidarity” to expect Muslims to settle in a country without a single mosque. So much for ‘European values.” In fact, despite relentless propaganda from US and EU NGOs suggesting otherwise, little has changed in Eastern Europe since most countries joined the EU in 2004. Endemic corruption remains steadfast in these states, press freedom hardly exists and revanchist nationalism is strengthening.

Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, is so disgusted at eastern intolerance that he’s set to propose sanctions on ex-communist states. This might include axing some EU structural funds from which “eastern European states profit most of all,” he said. Meanwhile, at the other end of the financial scale, David Cameron has made it clear that the UK will not participate in a quota-driven plan to share the refugee burden. This is despite the fact that Britain is seen as NATO’s most enthusiastic European member.

Free movement isn't working

In reality, Latvia’s posturing doesn’t much matter. Nor does that of the likes of Hungary, Estonia or Bulgaria. Just as their own citizens relocate in large numbers to the likes of Germany, Ireland, Britain and the Netherlands, newly arrived refugees and migrants have the same desire. Sure, a few thousand Syrians and Afghans might be happy to stay in Vilnius or Bucharest for a while, but, ultimately, it is places such as Berlin and London they dream of.

A policeman directs migrants to board busses in Nickelsdorf, Austria September 14, 2015. © Leonhard Foeger

Germany knows this, too. That’s why Angela Merkel’s administration closed the border. Ultimately, the Berlin government, the dominant power in Europe, had no choice but to sacrifice the European principles it normally espouses to protect its own country. We shouldn’t blame the Germans for this.

Aside from language and a shared culture, the reason free movement in the US works is because incomes are not wildly divergent across the nation. The wealthiest state, Connecticut, posted a 2013 per capita annual income of $37,892. At the other end of the scale, Mississippi registered $20,618. The national average was $28,155.

If we compare those figures with the EU’s, the gap is astonishing. Luxembourg’s median wage is $51,926. By contrast, Latvia’s is a meager $5,010. You don’t need to be a genius to decipher where migrants want to go.  

As a result, we have the horrible spectacle of thousands of people literally walking along highways across southern and eastern Europe – often in searing heat – to reach the prosperous north. One always assumed that their urgency was linked to fears that the welcome might diminish. After Germany’s sudden border closure, that theory has been validated. Germany, for all its fiscal might, just can’t process the sheer weight of numbers. As Jean-Claude Juncker says: “There is not enough union in this union.” The continent’s wealth gap is just too pronounced.

The migrant issue also serves to further harden UK attitudes against open frontiers and Brussels itself. The same effect is noticeable in France and Sweden. Thus, it’s not just the Schengen area that’s in danger, it might be the entire EU dream. US support for ISIS-linked “rebels” against the Syrian government could eventually have the unintended consequence of destroying the European project. Given that the EU is a key-pillar of Atlanticism and US hegemony that would be the most extraordinary chain reaction imaginable.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.