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INTERNAL REBORDERING IN THE SCHENGEN AREA 
THE WEAKENING OF EU INTEGRATION

Liana Vasile

Introduction

 The European Union (EU) has witnessed a rise in waves of immigrants in the past several years and consequently, an increase in border controls across the Member States (MS) of the Schengen Area (Colombeau, 2020). This paper aims to demonstrate that this recent rise of border controls negatively impacts the EU integration process and fuels Eurosceptic sentiments supported by radical right-wing parties. 

The Schengen area includes the territories of 27 countries, among which all EU members, except for Ireland and Cyprus (European Commission, 2023). Romania and Bulgaria have recently been approved to enter Schengen, beginning in March 2024, while Norway and Switzerland are the only Schengen Area states that are not EU members. Although the Schengen Agreement intends to achieve free movement of people, the area it covers has not been border control-free for over seven years (De Somer, 2020). Between 2006 and 2019, internal borders were reinstated more than 100 times by reintroducing normal control checks at national borders (Nikolić & Pevcin, 2021). Moreover, over ten new temporary border controls were reintroduced in the past year and are fixed to last for 2024 (European Commission, 2023). The wars in Ukraine and Gaza, happening in the proximity of the EU, only increase the probability of future high flows of migrants wanting to enter the MS, adding to the existing high waves of migration (Mikheieva & Jaroszewicz, 2023). 

Concomitantly, the EU is confronted with a rise of right-wing extremist national parties and populist regimes that use the anti-migrant discourse as a tool to gain support in their praise of Euroscepticism (Petrović et al., 2023). National populist radical right parties such as the Italian Northern League (LN - Lega Nord), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ – Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs), and the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV - Partij voor de Vrijheid) have continuously expressed their rejection of EU-internal immigration and used their stance towards EU migration policies to receive popular support (Heinisch et al., 2021). Currently, eight EU states have at least a 15% share of seats in their national parliament held by extreme-right parties (Statista, 2023). Hence, migrant waves affect current EU border regulations, while also fuelling right-wing discourses which can further impact the trajectory of pro-EU sentiments and EU integration.

The fact that MS decided to override the regulations set by the Schengen Agreement only seems to confirm that illegal migrations are considered national threats and hence support some of the sentiments populist regimes instill regarding immigrant issues (Van der Woude & Van Berlo, 2015). The thorough investigation of such a topic addresses the current gap in the academic literature focused on EU integration and internal rebordering. Defined as long-standing derogations from the Schengen regime’, internal rebordering refers to the reinstatement of border checks or controls within a certain area, in this case within the territories shared by the MS of the Schengen Area (Gruszaczak, 2022, p.246). While there are vast bodies of literature examining both topics, no piece has questioned the effects of the increasingly changing environment of border regulation on EU integration, sentiments, and people’s attitudes toward the future of the Union. This research might prove instrumental in identifying potential factors that influence Euroscepticism trends, as well as popular opinions towards the Schengen Area and EU policies, internal and external. Therefore, to better understand how MS’ responses to migration flow drive possible changes in people’s attitudes towards the EU, this paper aims to answer the following research question: How does internal rebordering within the Schengen Area affect EU integration?

This essay argues that internal rebordering within the Schengen Area negatively impacts the integration of the EU. This will be proved by firstly showing how restricted movement within the Schengen Area decreases the sense of EU identity and belonging. Secondly, it will be assessed how credibility towards the EU diminishes due to the low legitimacy attributed to the Schengen Agreement, by both EU institutions and by the MS. Thirdly, it will be argued that border enforcement serves to nation-building, which prevents EU integration, physically and culturally. Lastly, the discussion section would weigh the disadvantages created by internal rebordering against the potential benefits they might have, namely increased levels of security and better police networking and cooperation among the MS.

Theoretical Framework & Policy Context

To properly assess the effects that internal rebordering has on the EU, this paper engages with the current Schengen Borders Code, as adopted by the EU, and with notions and theories of European Integration, as proposed by European Union scholars (Cini & Pérez-Solórzano Borragán, 2019). Inter-state cooperation and integration are the goals that the founding members had in mind when establishing the European Community (EC). What is now referred to as ‘integration’ encompassed multiple factors, from supranational institutions overlooking MS’ decisions, and common policies, to economic and political integration. Being limited to only six MS in the early stages of the EC (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands), in the 1950s, integration gradually expanded to more countries once the EU was founded based on the EC, through the Treaty on European Union in 1992. 

Several theories exist to explain the EC, and later EU integration, the most prominent ones being intergovernmentalism and neo-functionalism (Cini & Pérez-Solórzano Borragán, 2019). While intergovernmentalism dictates that MS have total sovereignty and interests to cooperate at a European level, neo-functionalism says that supranational institutions' interests can sometimes override those of the MS. Furthermore, neo-functionalism considers political integration to follow from economic integration, which has the effect of strengthening the MS. This theory is founded based on the spill-over effects, which refer to the creation of new goals for a community, as a result of the political cooperation developed for achieving previous goals. Therefore, while working on certain aims regarding integration in a specific field, opportunities for cooperation and integration in another area arise and are followed to better integrate that community. 

One main element of the EC integration project was the Schengen Agreement, currently functional within the EU (Cini & Pérez-Solórzano Borragán, 2019). In 1985, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, France, and Italy decided to eliminate border controls, a decision formalised through the 1985 Schengen Agreement, and the 1990 Schengen Implementation Convention. The objective of the agreement was to strengthen the EC’s external borders and to remove the internal borders to ensure the smooth flow of production factors, capital, and human labour that would establish the economic integration envisioned through the Single Market project. Physical barriers were one of the three kinds to be removed internally within the EU, along with technical and fiscal barriers. Developed beginning with 1984, the Single Market project became a pillar of EU integration, through its main aim of establishing the ‘free movement of goods, services, capital, and people’ (Cini & Pérez-Solórzano Borragán, 2019, p.19). As the neo-functionalist theory of EU integration suggests, ‘pressures for integration spilled over from the efforts’ to remove physical borders and integration became a goal for the EU larger than economic benefits, aiming for social and cultural ones as well  (p.19).

Later, Schengen was implemented within the EU regulations through the Amsterdam Treaty. The Schengen Borders Code (SBC) is the document that dictates the procedures MS need to follow when controlling the movement of people across Schengen borders, internal and external (Van der Woude & Van Berlo, 2015). Despite the initial economic purposes, the absence of physical borders led to the cultural and social integration of the EU’s citizens as well.

Under Title III of the SBC, concerning internal borders, Article 22 mentions that ‘Internal borders may be crossed at any point without a border check on persons, irrespective of their nationality, being carried out’ (SBC, p. 36). Nevertheless, phenomena such as high numbers of migrants wanting to enter the EU, both legally and illegally, have motivated multiple MS to defy SBC’s Article 22 and introduce what scholars have called ‘internal rebordering’ (Gruszczack, 2022, p.246). While the SBC mentions that countries are allowed to reintroduce internal borders to promote the internal security of certain areas, the document explicitly and repeatedly mentions how this measure should be a last resort in terms of security concerns (SBC, p.3). 

The more profound involvement of the Union in its MS policies, specifically through the Single Market and the Schengen Agreement initiatives, along with the uncertainty created by continuous waves of migrants into the EU are the factors that led people and political leaders to question the legitimacy, stability and the need of the EU. This questioning of the EU's status is termed ‘Euroscepticism’, which refers to voiced ‘opposition to closer integration’ of the EU (Usherwood & Startin, 2013, p.1). Opposing pro-EU sentiments, the concept of ‘nation-building’ will be used in this essay to refer to the process of preferring national identity, integration policies, security, culture, and ideologies, in contrast to European or international ones (Harris, 2017). The following section will analyse the extent to which the derogation from the SBC impacts the current state of EU integration, as well as the valence of this impact and its fuelling of Eurosceptic support. 

Analysis

Decreasing EU identity

Internal rebordering has a detrimental impact on EU integration as its restriction of movement decreases people’s identification with the Union and their EU-belonging sentiments. The introduction of temporary internal borders implies a reduction of the free movement and mobility granted by the Schengen agreement to the people of the EU (Gruszczak, 2022). Nevertheless, as mentioned in the SBC itself, ensuring free movement across internal borders is ‘one of the main achievements of the Union’ (SBC, p3). This therefore promotes one of the main principles of the EU, namely the freedom of the people. Additionally, several polls suggest that EU citizens believed this achievement to be the EU's most important one, hence overshadowing the accomplishment of creating peace among the MS (De Somer, 2020). While removing borders fosters freedom and liberty, which are essential values that maintain the prosperity of the EU, rebordering represents a reversed action, having a protectionist character (Gruszczak, 2022). Therefore, a reduced ability to freely move within the Union goes against citizens’ beliefs and most valued principles, leading to fewer reasons for nourishing EU-belonging sentiments.

Second, internal rebordering disincentives inter-state travelling, further adding to a decrease in levels of European identity. Salomon and Rijpma (2023) claim that EU citizens who are highly mobile and travel across the Union ‘feel more European’ than those who are less mobile (p.284). They continue to argue that not only is the abolition of border controls beneficial for free movement purposes, but also it is instrumental in ‘identity formation’ (p.284). They thus conclude that EU citizens’ identification with the Union is negatively affected by the ‘partial suspension’ of the SBC (p.303). Hence, the action of re-introducing such controls might show opposite consequences, specifically identity fragmentation. Losing the ability to be highly mobile can hence lead to decreased levels of feeling European, which can further impact the orientation people have towards EU policies, leading to more proneness to Euroscepticism.

Therefore, as EU citizens enjoy the chance to free movement and find this to reflect the benefits of EU membership, it can be deduced that maintenance of control-free borders encourages the formation of stronger pro-EU sentiments, whereas internal rebordering promotes the opposite. Furthermore, the reintroduction of borders reduces inter-state travelling, which leads to lower citizen mobility and hence reduced European identity. 

Diminishing EU Credibility

Internal rebordering negatively impacts the EU's credibility among its MS as it reduces the Union’s levels of legitimacy. This happens because of the lesser importance given to the SBC by the European countries and because of the limited actions performed by the EU’s institutions in making sure the agreement is properly followed by the MS. Derogating from the SBC damages EU credibility as this document is crucial for the Union’s integration through its laying down of the free mobility agreement. Reintroduction of national borders is permitted by the SBC in the exceptional cases of ‘threats to public policy or internal Security in a Member State’ (SBC, Article 25(1)). Salomon and Rijpma (2023) emphasise that the SBC foresees derogations from control-free borders only as a last-resort method for protecting a state, and for a duration that must ‘not exceed what is strictly necessary’ (p.284). Additionally, exemptions from the SBC can be made if there is any ‘serious ground to public policy or internal security to the overall functioning of the Schengen area’, that might result because of improper management of the external borders (SBC, Article 29). While most of the fourteen countries that currently hold internal border controls evoke terrorist, espionage, or human smuggling fears as reasons for their internal rebordering, three of them (Austria, Czechia, and France) also mention a deterioration of the external Schengen borders security (European Commission, 2023). All these fears are fuelled by the current wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and while they are geographically detached from the Union, they already affect the EU’s most important policies, such as the SBC. 

Salomon and Rijpma (2021) discuss how despite the ‘temporary’ aspect of internal rebordering, the European Commission (EC) has not taken action to reinforce the main rules of the SBC. They strongly claim that, as the main theories of European integration also dictate, removing border controls within the Schengen Area is a crucial aspect of integration. They further add that, when an EU law covering such an important area of European integration, such as the free movement of people, is infringed, the EC usually enforces its powers to oppose the infringement. This should more urgently happen if the main law is not followed for a longer period. Nevertheless, at the moment, the EC has not performed specific action to widely re-enforce the SBC, nor has it opposed the phenomenon of internal rebordering. Furthermore, the EC has not conducted systematic evaluations of most of the border reinstatements, nor has it initiated any ‘infringement proceedings’ against the MS which introduced internal rebordering (Salomon & Rijpma, 2021, p.286). The actions the EC has nevertheless performed range from encouragements for MS to use police checks within their territory rather than border checks to various minor recommendations, but no stricter measures. 

MS part of the Schengen Agreement no longer seems to completely trust external borders to prevent illegal migrants and potential terrorists from entering their territory, which is why they choose to reinstate national control checks. Fears of trafficking and criminal networks entering the EU have exacerbated MS’ wishes for internal rebordering (European Commission, 2023). Thus, exceptions from the SBC start to become the norm among the MS, enforcing more fears regarding Schengen borders and the security of the people within the EU. Ultimately, these shift the focus of MS from following the SBC’s main regulations to finding suitable exemptions, to allegedly maintain a high level of national security. Finally, prioritising national interests and condemning Schengen’s security performance threatens the sense of EU legitimacy now overshadowed by potential external menaces.

The choice of following SBC’s exemptions’ criteria rather than its main goal further negatively impacts EU credibility as this shifts the focus from a free and secure Union to the national interests of people’s preservation in the face of threats that cannot be properly overcome at the borders of the Schengen Area. Additionally, it can be seen that in the case of internal rebordering, the EC seems to accommodate the preferences of the MS rather than take more actions to enforce the main provisions of the SBC. This clearly denotes the supremacy of MS policies on internal borders and immigration over the EU’s legislation, a fact that hence decreases the EU’s legitimacy, and is a crucial issue, as De Somer (2020) notes: ‘a Europe without Schengen, or with a weakened Schengen, would entail fundamental legitimacy risks for the European project as a whole’ (p.182). Consequently, this encourages the idea of immigration threats being serious dangers to MS’s security, possibly strengthening the populist debates condemning free movement within the EU, and discouraging the EU’s desire for maintenance or improvement of EU integration. 

Nation-Building Preventing EU Integration

Enforcement of internal borders promotes nation-building, which deters further actions for preserving and continuing EU integration. Nationalist sentiments disproportionately lessen EU-belonging and EU-identification ones. Van der Woude (2020) explains how national identity is established solely through ‘contradictions and exclusions’ as borders or border zones ‘delineate who belongs and who does not’, further serving to ‘nation-building and identity establishing’ (p.125). Accordingly, the reinstatement of borders within the EU makes external borders and identity less prominent, as they accentuate the differences between the MS. 

Exemptions from the SBC becoming a norm may also support the framing of the Schengen Area as something detrimental to nation-building, contrarily to internal borders. This would further validate the discourses fostering anti-EU sentiments, repeatedly voiced by radical right-wing leaders. These discourses focus on valuing the people, rather than the elites of society, comparisons being made with the EU as a globalist elite or imperialistic organisation, in contrast to the national states (Petrović et al., 2022). Hence, internal rebordering has an element of national identity preservation which works against the EU identities, decreasing the sense of an integrated community. Moreover, it indirectly supports the preference of nation-states to the Union, which is easily reframed by EU opposers as an elite-led organisation that does not act in the interest of the people.


Discussion

The main point that can be raised to combat the idea that internal rebordering is detrimental to EU integration relates to the security advantages this policy brings to the MS. As previously mentioned several times, reinforcements of internal borders have been applied due to certain countries’ fears of criminal activities that might endanger national securities. As stated by the European Commission (2023), these fears range from ‘new terrorist threats’ and ‘risk of possible terrorist infiltration’ to ‘high migratory pressure’, ‘threat of espionage from foreign state intelligence’ and ‘significant threat to public policy and internal security’. 

Van der Woude (2020) discusses how cross-border collaborations between police forces have widened because of the Schengen agreement, along with the border controls. Therefore, internal rebordering is argued to improve the exchange of data necessary in criminal investigations, which is now internationally possible due to the SBC. Nevertheless, this aspect seems to focus on collaboration and integration of certain institutions such as the police, rather than visualise the wider image of EU integration. 

While exchanges of information could still continue if internal rebordering is replaced with more police-conducted checks within national territories, EU integration and pro-EU sentiments would be positively impacted if free movement would become less restrained within the Schengen Area. These would be consequences of allowing EU citizens to become more mobile, associate themselves more with the Union, and create a sense of nation-building within the Schengen borders, rather than the national ones. Furthermore, discouraging internal rebordering would not only promote EU integration but may also reduce the security fears faced by the MS, if a deeper focus on external border controls and policies is applied by EU institutions. 

Conclusion

European integration has been one of the main if not the most important goals of the EU since its early days. The extent to which EU citizens identify with the Union, the credibility and legitimacy they attribute to EU-made laws and decisions, and the sense of Union-building, rather than nation-building are all vital indicators of the progress that EU integration has and the trajectory it follows. This paper has argued that internal rebordering negatively impacts all these factors, despite the apparent benefits that it might bring to individual MS in the Union. Adhering to the exemption cases, rather than the main provisions of the SBC reduces the free movement of EU citizens within the Schengen area, hence decreasing their sentiments of belonging to the EU and supporting its policies. Having multiple consistent derogations from the agreement brings a lack of legitimacy to the Union, whose own institutions seem to favour the exceptional measure of rebordering to the normal course of following the SBC. Lastly, reintroducing internal physical borders lessens the salience that EU borders have against national ones, therefore leading to an increased sense and need for nation-building rather than EU membership. These ultimately sustain the wide-embraced discourse of national radical right populist parties across the EU which may aim for a less integrated European Community and more isolated national ones, while also appealing to a rebirth of national sovereignty and supremacy over globalisation and the liberal values promoted by the Union.

As preserving the EU is instrumental for our society, especially during the current times of geopolitical imbalance, policies targeting immigration and internal rebordering have to be rethought. Further research might be needed to understand how the EU’s external borders are better secured and how internal rebordering and derogations from the SBC can be discouraged. If States continue to use Article 29 of the SBC for constant rather than temporary reinstatement of internal borders, the balance of the EU might shift, as well as the relations between its MS, let alone those with foreign actors. The unpredictability of these potential shifts is another topic worth investigating.




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