Return of Europe's Borders Is Just a Nuisance

Suspending Schengen agreement won't be awful or stop refugees.

Mostly business as usual.

Photographer: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

If the Schengen passport-free zone in Europe is suspended because of the inability of some countries to deal with the flood of refugees, it may be an event of huge symbolic significance. But let's be clear: It will only create a mild nuisance for a small number of Europeans and do little to keep asylum-seekers away.

The discussion of whether Schengen is viable under today's conditions has escalated lately as a number of European governments put pressure on Greece, the main entry point for refugees, to accept external help in enforcing its borders. The Financial Times, citing a leaked discussion paper, has even reported that a two-year suspension of the Schengen agreements is on the table.

This is probably not a serious threat: It's mainly meant to scare Greece, a country that has proven a woefully inadequate member of all the European institutions it has joined. Yet it's something many outside the European Union consider a potential failure of the world's most ambitious trust-based project.

The practical implications of the current Schengen erosion are much less far-reaching. I have recently crossed borders where controls have been temporarily reintroduced -- those between Germany and Austria, Italy and France, Germany and the Czech Republic. In calmer times, one could drive across these lines without once hitting the brakes. Travelers were only aware they were in a different country when their mobile phones switched to roaming (mobile operators weren't around when the Schengen documents were signed).

More recently, long-abandoned booths that used to house border guards and police officers have been manned again. On some roads, where the booths have been torn down, police cars have been parked near border crossings. The officers watch the traffic, which in some places is diverted into a single lane and slowed down with speed limit signs. I haven't been stopped and I haven't witnessed long lines of cars anywhere; slowdowns because of roadworks are much worse. 

I was lucky. Spot checks do take place -- the focus is on trucks and vans -- and people who regularly commute across borders say traffic jams have sometimes formed because of the slowdowns and closed lanes. Some have reported delays as long as two hours, though that's rare.

That, however, is not a huge deal, except perhaps for about 1.7 million people from Schengen countries who commute to neighboring states to work, the prospect of interrupted or slowed travel may not be so welcome. Many of these won't notice anything, however, because they are Slovaks traveling to work in the Czech Republic or Estonians going to other Baltic states.  There's almost no refugee traffic across these borders and there's no need to reintroduce controls there. Others will probably face a longer commute until police figure out how to minimize delays and still watch the traffic.


The rest of us probably won't be affected by a suspension of Schengen. Long-distance holiday trips may become a bit more of a drag. It's not as if Europeans weren't required to carry passports or ID cards when crossing borders inside the Schengen area. Germans have never been legally allowed to leave or enter the country without valid identification, even if it was never checked. Most European hotels require IDs from foreign guests, even those from other Schengen states.

The original Schengen agreement, signed on June 14, 1985, described what border controls between these countries would look like in the transition period to borderless travel:

[T]he police and customs authorities shall as a general rule carry out simple visual surveillance of private vehicles crossing the common border at reduced speed, without requiring such vehicles to stop. However, they may carry out more thorough controls by means of spot checks. These shall be performed where possible off the main road, so as not to interrupt the flow of other vehicles crossing the border.

Later, the document was expanded and brought into the EU framework. It allows countries to reintroduce national border controls "where public policy or national security so require." Countries can do this for up to two years in "exceptional circumstances." For now, a suspension of Schengen is not necessary. Any new measures will most likely restore things to the way they were in late June, 1985.

Polls repeatedly show freedom of movement to be the EU's biggest achievement after peace; it's much more popular than the euro. But perfunctory border controls and infrequent spot checks -- or selective passport checks on buses and trains -- do not equal the abolition of or even a serious infringement on that freedom. Europeans and those with European resident permits still won't need visas to cross borders into other Schengen states and EU citizens will still have the right to work anywhere in the EU. If commuters find themselves waiting too long at borders, many will just move closer to work.

Even those hassles, however, can be avoided. Greece, which lacks common land borders with any other Schengen state, has no more business being in the passport-free zone than in the euro. Its infrastructure, the quality of policing and governance are little different from those in Turkey, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria, countries on which Greece does border and which are not Schengen members. It's also too poor to handle an influx of thousands of asylum-seekers per day.

The EU will likely force Greece to accept help in patrolling borders. That, however, won't stop refugees from getting into "core" Europe. There's no way to keep such masses of people out short of deadly military action. The reintroduction of mild border checks, which Europe is almost certain to see in the next year or so, is only an ineffective knee-jerk reaction, an attempt by politicians to show they're not sitting on their hands. 

European leaders may believe that such measures, coupled with the recent deal with Turkey to keep Syrian refugees in the camps there in exchange for 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in EU aid, will stem the influx of refugees. They are probably mistaken.

Refugees will keep coming as long as the war in Syria rages on, whether or not border-free travel is suspended. Making a concerted effort to stop the war would make it unnecessary to lengthen the commute for Germans working in Luxembourg and Italians holding down jobs in France -- which is all a Schengen suspension does, anyway. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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