The problem with freezing free movement

Simone Sessolo, Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies
Foto: The closure of the Swiss-Austrian border during the first wave of Covid-10. Asurnipal on Wikipedia Commons

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half a million people have died in the European Union. To stop the spread of the virus, countries have enacted entry restrictions, lockdowns, and curfews, limiting free movement of people in Europe. These border closures are both an economic problem and an unprecedented crisis for one of the EU’s foundational freedoms

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020 and started to spread in Europe, the priority for governments was to limit contagion and avoid overwhelming healthcare systems. The introduction of measures never seen before in peacetime, such as lockdowns and curfews, was paired with the reintroduction of more common measures, such as border controls and entry restrictions. In the European Union, border controls had previously been abolished, to a large extent, in the 1990s and 2000s, with the implementation of the Schengen Agreement.

The first issue with the reestablishment of border controls is economic. There are two areas that suffer the bulk of the negative impacts from border controls: trade, and tourism. Trade suffers from border controls because they slow down the shipment of goods and deliveries. Depending on the thoroughness of the checks, the backlog of trucks waiting to cross the border can delay shipments by hours, which can be a disaster for those industries shipping perishable or time-sensitive goods. As a result, the overall cost of trade increases. Tourism is an economic activity of major importance in the European Union, accounting for 10% of the EU’s GDP. The abolition of border controls made it much easier to travel within the continent, thus certainly contributing to strengthening the sector, as the easier it is to travel somewhere, the more someone is likely to travel there. Reintroducing border controls makes tourism more difficult, or in some cases impossible. As a result, tourist arrivals have dwindled and revenue from tourism-related activities has diminished.

The second issue caused by increasing border restrictions is one of unprecedented scale for one of the EU’s foundational ideas: freedom of movement. Since the inception of the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of the European Union, free movement of people among member states has been an integral and crucial aspect of membership. In fact, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, one of the founding treaties of the EU, proposed the creation of a common market, with four foundational freedoms at core of it: free movement of goods, services, capital, and persons. Today, freedom of movement is regarded as one of the union’s greatest achievements in terms of cooperation and mutual trust between European countries. However, COVID-19, and the border closures that were introduced as a result of it pose a double threat to this foundational idea: first, they erode the intra-European trust that is the basis of cooperation; second, they subtly promote the idea that national unilateralism, not international cooperation, constitutes the road ahead for Europe.

A foundational treaty
The 1957 Treaty of Rome already incorporated the concept of freedom of movement as both a core objective and a core value for the EEC. At the time of its ratification however, free movement was somewhat difficult, as systematic border controls were in place at all internal borders. This meant that someone travelling from Germany to Italy through Austria would have to have their passport checked upon arrival in Austria and upon arrival in Italy. For trade, this resulted in long queues as goods had to be controlled and cleared by customs before entering the country. The abolition of internal border controls was delayed by disagreement within member states, so in 1985, the representatives of Belgium, France, West Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands met in the Luxembourgish town of Schengen. There, where the Moselle river flows and the borders of Luxembourg, France, and Germany meet, they signed the Schengen Agreement. This landmark agreement proposed practical steps both in the short-term and in the long-term, with the objective that its signatories “abolish checks at common borders and transfer them to their external borders”.

Today, freedom of movement is regarded as one of the greatest achi-evements in terms of cooperation and mutual trust between European countries

Since then, the number of signatories to the Agreement has increased. Nowadays, twenty-two EU Member States out of twenty-seven are part of the Schengen Area: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden. In addition, four countries part of EFTA (the European Free Trade Association, a sort of EU-light that focuses on promoting free trade) are also part of the Schengen Area: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland. The five EU countries that are not part of Schengen are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania. Of these five countries, only Ireland has a permanent opt-out from Schengen. This means that the country is not obliged to adopt it even if it meets the requirements. The other four countries must become part of the Schengen Area as soon as the minimum requirements are achieved. This is because since the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam the Schengen Agreement is part of the acquis communautaire,the foundational body of law of the European Union, and, as a result, it must be adopted together with the rest of the pre-existing body of EU law by new member states.

The economic benefits of free movement
The Schengen Area contributes to economic growth in Europe. In fact, according to a study by the EU Commission, a two year suspension of Schengen would cause direct economic damage as high as €25 billion per year; more than the entire GDP of Iceland! 

The benefits of free movement come especially from frictionless trade within Europe: the lack of meticulous checks that are normal at border crossings mean that goods can be transported rapidly, efficiently, and conveniently across borders and sold in other countries. In fact, intra-EU border checks would be largely irrelevant, as goods standards are decided to a large extent at European level and, as a result, one can be sure that a good produced in Estonia adheres to the same standards as one produced in Portugal. 

Furthermore, tourism greatly benefits from the abolition of border checks. It makes travelling within Europe cheaper, less time-consuming, and less organizationally-demanding as there is no need to plan ahead for visas. Free movement incentivized tourism within the Schengen Area so much so that it accounts for 10% of the overall EU GDP. This ability to travel frictionlessly in Europe has been internalized to such an extent that when travel becomes more difficult, it is immediately noticed.

The pandemic and border restrictions
Parties to Schengen can temporarily reintroduce border controls in exceptional situations, such as when there is a threat to national security. In any case, the reintroduction of border checks must be used as a last resort measure, in exceptional situations, and limited in time. In general, the reintroduction of border controls is a measure that has nonetheless been used sparingly in recent years; controls have been reintroduced multiple times and for two main reasons. On several occasions, countries decided to reintroduce border controls after terrorist attacks occurred: this was the case with Norway after the 2011 terror attacks in Oslo and Utøya, and with France after the 2014 terrorist attacks in Paris and the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice. On the other hand, some countries reintroduced border controls to limit immigration: that was the case with Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Sweden, Denmark, and Hungary during the 2015 migratory crisis in Southern Europe.

When COVID-19 started spreading in Europe, many countries reintroduced border controls. First among all Schengen countries was Austria, which reintroduced border controls at its land border with Italy on 11thMarch 2020. Since then, 14 countries have followed Austria’s lead and have reintroduced border controls because of COVID-19: Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland. As a result, crossing an internal border in 2020 was much like crossing an internal border in the 1970s, with queues for systematic passport controls being the norm.

One of Europe’s greatest achievements
Free movement in Europe started when five countries deciding that policing their borders with each other was more detri-mental than beneficial. From there, it evolved into one of the greatest achievements of cooperation in Europe. Nowadays, it is taken for granted by those who benefit from it. But suspending free movement has important repercussions: It damages the economy by making trade more expensive, and it makes tourism more difficult and diminishes revenue of tourism-related activities. More fundamentally however, it has consequences for the European integration project as a whole. It promotes an idea of Europe where national boundaries are extremely important and where cooperation is much more limited in scope and in depth. This idea is the opposite of the notion of a united Europe that so many have worked towards since the establishment of the EEC. 

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