Schengen is an idyll, the name of a picturesque wine-growing village in southeast Luxembourg near the border with France and Germany, that is also a favorite getaway destination, particularly during grape harvesting season.
The village has been a symbol of freedom of movement in Europe ever since the agreement signed in Schengen decades ago led to one of the European Union’s greatest achievements.
The pact did away with most of the E.U.’s internal borders and passport controls, allowing people and goods to move freely across most of the continent in what is known as the Schengen Area.
The entity came into being in 1995 and now covers all E.U. member states excluding Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom – but also includes Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.
Instead of an army of border officials in ugly little huts, we have signs with a deep blue background and the yellow stars of the E.U. with the respective name of the country mark its territory. Now, we can pass effortlessly through national borders without having to wait.
But the good times seem to have passed.
First, Germany on Sunday decided to temporarily reintroduce border controls.
On Monday, Austria followed suit.
Both decisions were born of necessity, since both countries are having to shoulder most of the burden of the massive movement of refugees in central Europe more or less on their own.
It’s an attempt at a balancing act of maintaining order while respecting humanitarian needs, said Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, going straight to the point. That’s why no alternative exists at the moment to temporary border controls and even border closings.
Three years ago, the E.U. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No one could have imagined at the time that the real test was yet to come.
Germany and Austria never tire of stressing that the temporary closing of borders are alllowed within the Schengen agreement’s parameters.
That might be legally right, but politically the damage is immense because this measure is threatening to end Schengen.
Along with the common euro currency, the mobility in Europe is one of the greatest achievements of the past decades.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear just how fragile this European achievement is.
Schengen can function only when Europe functions as a community with political solidarity. But, at the moment, the opposite is true. Eastern Europe – led by Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – is balking at a compulsory quota of refugees, which would lighten the western E.U. countries’ loads.
Hungary’s controversial prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his counterparts in the Czech Republic and Poland consider the E.U. to be primarily a cash machine.
Billions in aid are taken for granted, but when it comes to commitments — as with the right to asylum — the former Eastern Bloc countries that have found their way into the E.U. lapse into national self-interests.
Ms. Merkel and her Austrian colleague, Mr. Faymann, must increase pressure on the partners in the East. It’s absurd that the European Council president, Donald Tusk, hasn’t yet called a special E.U. summit on the issue.
On Tuesday, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Faymann are set to have a detailed telephone conversation with Mr. Tusk, who used to be Poland’s prime minister.
The time for talk has passed. Now it must be backed up with action.
Germany and its junior partner Austria can’t solve the refugee crisis by themselves. A temporary closing of the border has hopefully made it clear to the egoistic E.U. countries that there cannot just be a carrying-on of business as usual.
However, the end of the Schengen agreement still can be averted. To do that, there must be a fair allocation of refugees.
It should gradually become obvious, especially to the East Europeans, that their present isolationist policy is not only damaging the European idea, but above all, their own nations, since the economically weak will be the very first to suffer in a Europe with border barriers.
The threatening end of mobility reveals one of Europe’s cardinal mistakes.
Instead of jointly conducting a sound crisis-management program, national egoism still rules. In this, Hungary is only the tip of the iceberg. Other countries as well, such as Poland and Britain, are leaving the countries favored by refugees as destinations, like Germany and Sweden, out in the cold.
Three years ago, the E.U. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its commitment to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
At the time, no one could have imagined that the real test was yet to come. However, overcoming the refugee problem is not only a question of humanity. It is, in fact, shaking Europe’s very foundations.
If the heads of state and government don’t come very quickly to an agreement on an equitable allocation of the refugees and migrants, the Schengen agreement is as dead as a door nail – with foreseeable political and economic consequences for all of Europe.
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