How will Covid-19 affect Europe’s beloved Schengen?

“The risk we are facing is the death of Schengen.”

Emmanuel Macron to EU leaders, 26 March 2020

As if Brexit was not enough to disrupt the harmony of the EU, Covid-19 poses a huge threat to European free travel. The ‘Schengen Area’, set up thirty-five years ago, is the passport-free EU zone that spans twenty-six European (and several non-European) countries, making it the largest free-travel area in the world, allowing 440 million EU citizens to move around freely. Often called the ‘jewel in the crown’, Schengen seems to be the most effective and essential peace agreement ever achieved between states.

The ‘Schengen Visa’ gives non-EU citizens the right to a short stay (a lengthy ninety days) for tourism or business purposes, and in 2019 over fifteen million people used a Schengen Visa to travel around Europe. The Dutch especially are known to adore Schengen: in normal circumstances, nine million Dutch, along with their caravans, embark on a summer holiday abroad. But this year things look different; staycations are the new reality, and the Dutch, along with the rest of Europe, will simply be staying put.

Like many things, Schengen is more symbolic than it is essential. The EU is about making free travel easier, even if many Europeans stay local. A colossal 40 percent of Europeans say they never leave their country for summer holidays, and yet, 1.7 million Europeans live in one Schengen country but work in another. The economic benefits of Schengen are also profound. Almost €3tn worth of goods cross Schengen borders every year, and the French estimate that introducing internal borders across Schengen would cost the EU €110bn over ten years. Schengen belongs to all Europeans: “it allows the unemployed Spaniard to travel to Germany to search for work” (Atlantic Sentinel).

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Currently, the beauty of Schengen rests on the absence of internal border checks, allowing people to travel from Spain to Sweden without having their passport checked. But when Covid-19 hit, EU Schengen states were forced to choose which non-EU citizens could come to Europe: if France allowed people from America to visit, there would be little point Spain banning Americans from entering their country. The Schengen Agreement allows a country to request the right to put up border controls, and in cases of emergency (like a global pandemic), they can police their borders immediately. In total, 21 out of the 26 Schengen countries have introduced internal borders, forbidden entry for travellers, and more recently introduced a fortnight quarantine for holiday-makers. 

It goes without saying that the pandemic has disrupted all walks of life, but the travel industry seems to be one of the hardest hit, with the World Travel and Tourism Council estimating that 75 million tourist-related jobs are at risk worldwide, 27 million of which are in Europe. In April, Norwegian Air announced a cut of 3,000 flights (about 15 percent of its capacity), and British Airways, along with Ryanair, cancelled all flights to and from Italy in March. The European Commission has suggested that EU hotels and restaurants will lose half their income this year, and with such a heavy economic dependence on the tourism industry, countries like Spain (where, in 2019, 84 million tourists visited), will continue to suffer from a lack of tourism.

Schengen is already unsteady as a result of Brexit, which has posed an organisational nightmare for the EU, with significant changes being made to British passports and the possibility that UK citizens will now need to apply for Schengen visas. On top of this, brutal dictatorships, war, and terrorism in the Middle East have contributed to a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers within the EU; their arrivals have been met with right-wing and anti-immigration attitudes, and have also led some Schengen member-states to introduce temporary border controls. With the addition of a world pandemic, the Schengen free-travel zone is crippling under pressure. What once stretched across the entire continent, has now been scaled back by border checks.

When the EU struggles, be it because of political upheaval, Brexit, or a disease, Schengen struggles too and the concept of free movement between states is rendered increasingly difficult.

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