Schengen in Shambles

By shutting its borders, Germany is trying to strong arm its fellow European countries into solving the refugee crisis. The EU shouldn’t work that way.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 13:  German Chancellor Angela Merkel and King Abdullah II of Jordan (not pictured) speak to the media following talks at the Chancellery on May 13, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. The two leaders discussed the conflict in Yemen as well as the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan, among other issues.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 13: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and King Abdullah II of Jordan (not pictured) speak to the media following talks at the Chancellery on May 13, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. The two leaders discussed the conflict in Yemen as well as the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan, among other issues. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel’s management of the crisis in the eurozone has been disastrous, her treatment of Greece unforgivable. But the German chancellor has played a much more positive role in Europe’s other crisis: the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into the continent from the Middle East and Africa. By throwing open the doors to Syrians fleeing a terrible civil war, she has showed up more mean-spirited governments and given Germans pride in themselves. While Merkel was largely following German public opinion, not leading it, she still ended up doing the right thing.

Until now. Over the weekend, Germany closed its border with Austria and then imposed emergency border controls, prompting its neighbors to do likewise. While the European Commission has rubber-stamped the decision — when does it ever hold Berlin’s feet to the fire? — the Schengen Agreement, which is meant to guarantee open borders among its 26 member countries, is now in tatters. At a time when barriers are going up across Europe — Hungary’s authoritarian ultranationalist government is completing a razor-wire fence on its border with non-Schengen Serbia, the main transit route from the Balkans to Germany — this sends a terrible signal.

While the German move is ostensibly temporary and partly for practical reasons — local authorities say they have been overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of people arriving over the past month and need time to organize a more orderly welcome process — it is also political and likely to do lasting damage. Merkel is responding to domestic disquiet, notably in Bavaria, a province next to Austria which is run by a socially conservative sister party of her own Christian Democratic Union. Above all, Germany is trying to strong-arm its neighbors into taking more refugees. Berlin has long insisted that passport-free travel across the Schengen Area could not survive without a common European asylum policy. Now Merkel is unilaterally forcing the issue. That is a mistake.

The European Union is in a sorry state. After decades of coming together, it is disintegrating. The eurozone crisis has fragmented financial flows and set Europeans against each other. Greece may yet exit the euro, Britain the EU. Now people flows are being disrupted too.

The EU works reasonably well when sharing collective gains (from trade, for instance) or when Germany agrees to foot the bill (it is the biggest net contributor to the EU budget). But it is hopeless at sharing out costs, whether the real ones of the financial crisis or the perceived ones of the refugee crisis. Even at the best of times, appeals to “solidarity” achieve only so much. And now, seven long years of economic misery, taxpayer bailouts, and EU-imposed austerity have shredded support for collective European action. Nasty nationalists are on the march again in France, Britain, and elsewhere –­ and in government in Hungary and Slovakia. Immigration is a pressing concern in most countries.

Unsurprisingly, then, the EU approach to the refugee crisis has been a shambles. While its underfunded search-and-rescue program in the Mediterranean Sea saves some lives, too many still die. Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach, is one of 2,812 known deaths so far this year. EU rules stipulating that refugees should be granted asylum in the first EU country they reach are unworkable and unfair; since asylum-seekers mostly arrive in southern Europe and want to head north, Greece and Italy ignore the rules and facilitate their passage. While it was laudable of Germany to suspend its application of those rules and pledge to accept all arriving Syrian refugees, neither it nor EU authorities offer them safe passage there — and a Hungarian fence now stands in the way. And on Sept. 14, EU interior ministers failed to approve a European Commission plan to compulsorily resettle 120,000 refugees across the EU, on top of the 40,000 to be resettled voluntarily. Yet some 156,000 people entered the EU without permission in August alone, bringing the total this year to more than 500,000 — still only 0.1 percent of the EU population.

All European countries ought to welcome more refugees, as should the United States, which has accepted only 1,500 Syrians so far and promised to take only 10,000 more, and the wealthy Gulf states, which have taken virtually none. It is a humanitarian obligation, as well as a legal requirement of the United Nations Geneva Convention on refugees.

Welcoming both asylum-seekers and other migrants is also in Europe’s economic self-interest. A graying continent needs dynamic young workers to do jobs that locals spurn or lack the skills for, pay for and care for the old, and start businesses and spark new ideas. With the oldest population in Europe, a rapidly shrinking native workforce, and full employment, Germany in particular has much to gain.

That’s why talk of “burden sharing” is wrong-headed and counterproductive: Refugees and other migrants are a benefit to society, not a cost. While welcoming refugees requires an initial investment, the sooner they can start working, the sooner it will pay dividends. It is perverse that most EU countries ban asylum-seekers from working; they should stop doing so.

Bribes from Brussels and arm-twisting from Berlin may yet persuade most recalcitrant governments to go ahead with EU plans to resettle more refugees. But if a few can’t be persuaded, the others should go ahead without them. Rather than foisting unwanted refugees on the likes of Slovakia, it would be better to give truly hostile governments an opt-out: How welcome would they make Syrians feel anyway? The real priority ought to be opening up safe legal channels for people to claim asylum and come work in the EU.

Whatever happens, suspending the Schengen Agreement is likely to have lasting consequences. Open borders within Europe are meant to be sacrosanct; now they seem more negotiable. It would be a tragedy if by trying to push other governments to accept more refugees, Germany made it easier for them to restrict people flows.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute. Previously economic advisor to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess—and How to Put Them Right. Twitter: @plegrain

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