Europe’s Schengen zone — the world’s largest multinational free-travel area — is set to get even bigger now that Croatia has met the technical criteria to join. But what does Schengen expansion mean for Europe, and can the EU overcome its border policy crisis triggered by the migrant influx that began in 2014?
Croatia stands to receive a tourism boost as its stunning coastline is opened up to visitors with Schengen-wide visas. Yet its accession to the zone — a rare victory for expansionists in an EU battered by mass migration and populism — could still fail at the final hurdle if it is blocked by existing members.
Emmanuel Macron declared earlier this year that Schengen was no longer fit for dealing with mass migration, an issue that he called the “second great European struggle” after climate change. Schengen “does not work any more,” the French president said. “We must profoundly rethink our development policy and our migration policy, even if it is a Schengen with fewer states.”
Croatia would represent Schengen’s first territorial expansion in more than a decade when the accession of Switzerland was completed in 2008. It would also mark an expansion of ambition for a scheme that has weakened in recent years.
The Schengen zone currently comprises 22 of the EU’s 28 member states as well as four non-EU members: Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, is one of six members not in Schengen, alongside the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus.) The zone’s external borders cover 50,000 kilometres, according to the European Parliament.
Although held up as a major part of the European ideal, Schengen was one of the first casualties of the migrant crisis and wave of terrorist attacks, with many members throwing up internal border checks and temporary security controls in 2015 and 2016 — most of which are still in place.
“Saving Schengen is a race against time and we are determined to win that race,” Donald Tusk said at the height of the crisis, in 2016.
But with immigration still dominating politics, and the rise of populism, as well as the distraction of Brexit, many of the temporary measures have yet to be rolled back. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has made huge political capital out of his new razor-wire-topped border fence with Serbia and aggressive rhetoric about defending Europe from migrants.
Six Schengen countries still apply internal border controls: France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
“These controls are even in place at borders between Schengen members, such as France and Spain,” notes Marco Stefan, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
In a report into the Schengen dysfunction published last year, MEPs concluded that many internal borders are still in place “because we are paying the price of problems that are outside the scope of Schengen, such as asylum policy.”