We will not allow Schengen to fail

When it stops functioning Europe grinds to a halt

It has been 35 years since a number of Member States agreed to remove border controls between themselves. From five countries at the time, the Schengen Area grew to 26, counting 420 million citizens. A whole generation of Europeans grew up with little memory of systematic internal border checks. Border checks have become anecdotal. Many Europeans organised their lives around the freedoms that Schengen offers.

Thanks to Schengen, companies transport goods around our internal market with just-in-time supply chains. Thanks to Schengen, the internal border regions, that cover 40% of EU's territory, could open up to their neighbours. Thanks to Schengen, 2 million people could find jobs as frontier workers. And most importantly, people created cross-border links and European families.

The first months of the pandemic showed us what happens when Schengen stops functioning: Europe grinds to a halt. It may sound like a paradox, but this experience made me very confident in the future of Schengen. It is too precious for us all. We will not allow it to fail. But this does not mean that we can take Schengen for granted. Recent years have strained Schengen. Between 2006 and 2014, over nine years, internal border checks were reintroduced 35 times.

But since 2015, in less than five years, internal border checks were reintroduced 205 times. This is a significant increase. We need to understand the reasons behind it and address them urgently. Fact is that the challenges Schengen faces today are not the same as 25 years ago. We should confront these challenges head on. I am confident that we can and must continue developing Schengen, while keeping its benefits.

I see three areas of work: First, an area without internal borders needs a fully secure external border. No one should pass the border undetected, and any security risks must be identified.This applies to EU and non-EU citizens alike. For this, we need state of the art information systems, which we are already building.This has to happen fast. And we also need good procedures, like the screening process for people arriving irregularly. This one we proposed in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

Second, we need to ensure security within our common space. Close police cooperation as a rule, not an exception. For example, better and faster exchange of data, such as fingerprints of suspects, or a stronger role for Europol.

And third, Schengen needs better governance. We need to work on our system of evaluation and monitoring. We have to be fully confident about the application of rules everywhere in Europe. And I believe we need a better, common political steering of Schengen, with the European Parliament and the Member States.

The reason why we organised today's Schengen Forum is to hold a discussion on a way forward. I would like a pragmatic and operational debate that we can use to inform the Schengen Strategy we will put forward in May next year.

But let me also be clear about an important issue: As we develop Schengen, we cannot compromise on the fundamentals. Any internal border checks must be a last resort, and we need to work in very close coordination. Europeans have grown to rely on Schengen. Today it is essential for our economy and for our way of life. And we all have a responsibility to make it work.

Speech by President Ursula von der Leyen at the Schengen Forum, 30 November.

Similar articles